1958fairgrounds

FAIR QUESTIONS

Anyone downtown on March 15 may have noticed an unusual dark bus slowly rolling along; inside were representatives from Santa Rosa and the Chamber of Commerce who were guiding a tour for about 70 Bay Area developers. Our visitors were promised that we would loosen rules and regs, defer or waive significant fees, all to max out every inch of buildable space near downtown as fast as possible. It makes for an awkward coincidence this was the same date that the soothsayer in Shakespeare’s tragedy Julius Caesar croaked out “beware the Ides of March,” warning that bad things were about to happen.

(Note to readers: This is an opinion piece about current events in Santa Rosa.)

An executive with the Bay Area Council told a reporter that the incentives Santa Rosa is offering developers are “unprecedented” for the Bay Area. “Everyone I know in the San Francisco and other Bay Area markets has internalized the trauma of wrestling with city departments,” said a rep from an international investment firm. “I sort of feel like I’m in Disneyland when I’m in Santa Rosa.”

Coverage of that significant event came from the San Jose Mercury News and was reprinted by the Press Democrat (apparently the PD’s assignment editor thought their Pulitzer Prize-winning staff would be too busy preparing for the upcoming St. Paddy’s Day – those peppy “holiday tips” listicles don’t write themselves).

As the reporter wasn’t from here, she framed the story as if this was all being done because of the 2017 fires – but for the last five years, locals have heard about our “historic housing crisis” from every politician allowed near a microphone. It’s so bad, we’re told, that last year Santa Rosa and Sonoma County formed a “RED JPA” (that’s a Renewal Enterprise District created as a Joint Powers Authority, for those who like to know what things mean) to push through as much housing construction as quickly as possible. In Santa Rosa, that translates to adding 7,000 more housing units to the downtown area by the year 2040 – a total of 30k countywide.

“If the pace of housing production is not accelerated well beyond historic levels, the impacts on the economy, climate change, quality of life, and the health and well‐being of Sonoma residents could be dire,” warns the District’s problem statement.

Yow!

Did I hear Gentle Reader snorting in derision, skeptical that such a calamity is upon us? While county and city staff reports about planning goals are usually vague and cautious, that document reads like a political manifesto. (“Dire”? Seriously?) But hyperventilated or no, it seems to match the attitude of our RED officials – hence that welcome-to-Disneyland bus tour.

But let’s trust that the city and country are absolutely correct in their forecast and it’s really an unprecedented, five alarm, all hands on deck crisis – “dire,” even – and something must be done, and done swiftly. If that’s really so, here’s a modest proposal: Move the fairgrounds somewhere else and build thousands of new homes on the site.

The Sonoma County Fairgrounds is an island of county property within Santa Rosa city limits, and at 182 acres it’s more than twice the size of the former hospital campus on Chanate. It’s close to shopping, medical services, and because of easy access to Highway 12, a shuttle from the downtown SMART station can reach the neighborhood in a couple of minutes or so. In short, it’s an ideal location for infill development – except for it currently having a tenant, albeit one who uses the place only for a few weeks of the year and occasionally rents it out when friends drop by.

To many, I’m sure the notion of losing that location for the fairgrounds is unthinkable. But as I’ve just written in “THE LOST HISTORY OF THE SONOMA COUNTY FAIR,” the county fair flipped between being in Santa Rosa and Petaluma several times and was once held in Cotati. The only reason it ended up staying here was because the Press Democrat and Santa Rosa civic boosters wanted to use horse racing as a tourist draw during the Great Depression. For the first 12+ years there was no permanence to the fairgrounds; tents were rented for exhibits and livestock. The Hall of Flowers is a former B-29 airplane hanger the Fair bought cheaply in 1949.

Tents at the 1937 Sonoma County Fair (Photo courtesy Sonoma County Library)
Tents at the 1937 Sonoma County Fair (Photo courtesy Sonoma County Library)

Even if the Sonoma County Fairgrounds remained at this prime location, its footprint still could be reduced to add some housing. As the PD recently noted, interest in horse racing is fading quickly; should we really continue to set aside ~50 acres for it? And speaking of horse racing, can someone please tell me why the Jockey Club – a sports bar dedicated to off-track betting – is on the county’s fairgrounds property?

Shorn of the racetrack, horse stables, the OTB drinking hole plus some of the storage barns in back and the Sonoma County Fair becomes a size manageable to move. But where should the County Fair go?

The easiest option would be to let it revert to its origins at the Sonoma-Marin fairgrounds in Petaluma, either as part of their regular fair or as a separate August event. County Fair attendance is down 37 percent over the last six years, so the smaller Petaluma venue would not be a squeeze. But my preference (since no one asked) would be to have the fairgrounds swap places with the County Administration campus.

Just last month (July, 2019) the county agreed to pay a consultant up to $300,000 to ponder where to build a possible new joint city-county government center, with downtown Santa Rosa being a desirable option. The county says the Sheriff’s Office and the county jail are staying put; all those other offices could move to the fairgrounds location and there would still be enough room to build over a thousand single-family homes on the rest of the property.

A downsized County Fair, with its livestock, craft/floral exhibitions along with the usual Midway, would easily fit in the current Administration campus space. It particularly would be a better location for the Chris Beck Arena, which is increasingly used for monster truck rallies, destruction derbies and other loud motorsport events which blanket the downtown and beyond with the noise of roaring engines.

Nor would a fairgrounds/campus swap need to happen all at once. The redevelopment plan envisions stretching Santa Rosa’s population growth over the next 20 years, so any contracts and commitments regarding the existing fairgrounds have plenty of time to iron out. And construction of the new county office space could be incremental; while it’s ongoing, maybe the Supes could hold meetings in the auditorium of the Veterans Memorial Building, another underutilized public space.

None of this is under consideration, of course; as far as I can tell, no one has ever proposed redeveloping the fairgrounds before – but then again, we’ve also never had our city and county governments warning that we face a “dire” situation unless we add 7,000 places to live close to downtown.

Instead, Santa Rosa is pushing developers to build upwards, giving them generous incentives to construct 5, 7, and even 10 story buildings. All well and good, except for this: Seismologists tell us that Santa Rosa is a few decades overdue for The Big One – an earthquake of catastrophic proportion. I would not like to be inside, standing next to, or even driving past a ten story building when that hits.

The current odds are estimated at a 1-in-3 chance of our “Santa Rosa pull-apart basin” – and yes, it’s exactly as horrific as it sounds – rupturing before 2045, the highest risk in the Bay Area. Picture everything west of Brookwood Ave. suddenly shifting to the north while the east side heads south. In a quake of 7.0 magnitude or greater, that could mean a slippage of over six feet. It will be likely the worst disaster in Sonoma County history, and here’s the bonus good news: Memorial Hospital sits smack on Ground Zero.

You can read more about our earthquake fault in an earlier article (here’s also a geological study PDF), but the city should be handing a map such as the one below to every developer who comes here to look at “Disneyland.” Yes, it’s possible to build tall buildings that are seismically safe, but such engineering adds 20-25 percent to construction costs, and Santa Rosa is pitching the town as a place where they can build quickly, cheaply and hassle free.

Rodgers Creek Fault Zone in yellow (California Geological Survey)
Rodgers Creek Fault Zone in yellow (California Geological Survey)

So how will all this play out? Barring a major quake which turns all buildings into pancakes, I expect the city will have some success in attracting new development, although adding nowhere near 7,000 housing units in the downtown core. But the “Downtown Station Area Specific Plan” encompasses a far larger area (MAP); the concern is that the city will meet that quota by stuffing high density projects in the older neighborhoods. This has already happened, as the City Council approved the 185 unit DeTurk Winery complex in the West End, followed by the developer returning and asking to use a “density bonus” and bumping the number to 240 – and all this despite the location being within a historic preservation district.

Meanwhile, 182 acres sits fallow almost all of the year, a time capsule of pre-WWII Santa Rosa.

I suppose city and county staff will say fairgrounds redevelopment is off limits because it lies just outside the official Specific Plan boundary, or because of its special “Public Institutional” zoning. Well, working around such problems is the very point of having a county/city RED JPA – right?

This should also become an election year issue. Ask politicians to prioritize: Should we keep a gaming sports bar or build ten single family homes on the spot? Should we support a racetrack for a dying spectator sport or create a new infill subdivision? Do we need most to keep little-used fairgrounds or build a new community which would be half the entire size of Coffey Park? Since the City Council and Board of Supervisors tell us the situation is “dire,” these are fair questions. Very fair.

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1936grandstand

THE LOST HISTORY OF THE SONOMA COUNTY FAIR

Come August it’s Sonoma County Fair time in Santa Rosa; you can set your calendar by it. Even if you don’t attend the Fair anymore it’s one of those milestones that stubbornly refuse to be ignored, like Thanksgiving in November and Christmas in December. One morning the checkout line at the Cash & Carry was taking forever because the people ahead of me were mostly paying with crumpled one dollar bills. Then I noticed what was on their warehouse push carts: The cheapest cooking oil, bags of sugar heavier than a five year-old child, gallons of colorful fruit syrups. Ding! August. County Fair.

But it wasn’t always in August, or in Santa Rosa, and the fairgrounds has a very spotty history of even being a fairgrounds. Nor was there something every year which could be called the Sonoma County Fair; draw a timeline between 1883 and today and randomly pick a year – about a third of the time you’ll come up fairless.

This is a history of how the “Sonoma County Fair” evolved, but just like every evolutionary tree there was no clear, inevitable path from when it took root to where it is now; what we have today is just one branch that won out among several of its kin that didn’t happen to do as well. Some were organized by locals who created an association or society for that purpose; some were an official event of the state’s agricultural district for the North Bay. But even whether the fair was independent vs. government-sponsored doesn’t fully explain how things developed – at different times, what became the “Sonoma County Fair” has been both. The district fairs were mostly exhibits to promote local livestock and produce; the private fairs usually featured professional/semi-professional horse racing. And again, the “Sonoma County Fair” embraced both.

Rightfully Petaluma’s Sonoma-Marin Fair should probably have the County Fair monicker, as it has a longer record (starting in 1867) and has been held most consistently. Even older was the San Pablo Bay District Fair, which began in 1859. It was held in both the town of Sonoma and Vallejo and morphed into what was called the first “county fair” in the newspapers – the fascinating “Sonoma-Napa Mechanical Fair,” which drew Victorian nerds from all over the state (lots of wine drinking, too). That one will get an article here of its own, someday.

But while those other towns were earnestly trying to establish and maintain their annual festivals, in Santa Rosa there was tepid interest in fair-making, and what did exist proceeded in fits and starts for decades. What the City of Roses really wanted was to become the City of Races.

Whenever a town in the Old West rose out of the dust to become something better than just another stagecoach stop, it seemed there was always one guy who did ten times more than anyone else. In Santa Rosa, that was James P. Clark.

Clark arrived here with his brother in 1852, the year before the town was born. Over the next three decades he would be a founding member of the volunteer fire department, sheriff and mayor. As the latter he cast the tie-breaking vote to establish a public library here, the 1884 City Council being split between those who thought libraries were a waste of tax money or not. (Oh, Santa Rosa…) He bought Julio Carrillo’s “stall and buggy shed” and turned it into the Fashion Livery Stable, which became the hub for anything related to horse travel – an operation so big it took up the entire city block where the Roxy movie theater complex is today. He also bought from Julio the first house that was ever built in town, plus another 180 acres which he subdivided into (what would become much of) the West End Neighborhood and Railroad Square.

James Preston Clark (1820-1886) Image courtesy Sonoma County Museum
James Preston Clark (1820-1886) Image courtesy Sonoma County Museum

But what interests us here most about J.P. Clark is his interest in building racetracks and founding fairs.

In 1860 a group of local men formed a jockey club – which is to say, they agreed to pay dues of $25/year to construct a racetrack and organize several days of races. Clark built the track near the future Railroad Square depot location (no trains here yet in 1860, remember). Gamblers and horse breeders from all over the Bay Area came to that race, which was a big deal; $1900 in prizes were awarded – about $83k in today’s dollars.

Meanwhile, another group – the Sonoma County Agricultural and Mechanical Society (no connection to that Sonoma-Napa fair) – was starting to organize something like a proper fair for Sonoma county, with livestock exhibits plus a pavilion where locals could show off handiworks and things they grew. The first was held in Healdsburg in 1859, Petaluma the next year which was followed by Santa Rosa, where the fair included the second jockey club event. That 1861 fair was the marred by violence, due to the gamblers who came here for the races. The paper reported there was “but little drunkenness, comparatively, but whiskey has been the cause of several fights; among them one in which a deadly weapon was used.” A local man was shot in the leg outside the fairgrounds and “a fight occurred at the race track on Tuesday. One of the combatants was badly whipped.”

That violence may have been why interest wained in sponsoring big races here, as the jockey club disbanded and the racetrack was plowed under. No matter, really; there were similar clubs popping up frequently in those years and there were always private tracks where horse lovers could watch the racers train or compete in ad hoc meets. A few years later Clark built a half-mile track at his own ranch, which was close to our modern Costco shopping center.

1867southernfundThe unofficial title of Sonoma County Fair passed between the Agricultural District fairs after the Civil War, switching from Sonoma-Napa to Sonoma-Marin. The Sonoma county fairs were held in Petaluma for years thereafter, although Santa Rosa tried to hijack the name in 1867 for a fundraiser for the “Southern Relief Fund” – in other words, collecting money to send to the former Confederate states. (Everyone together, now: Oh, Santa Rosa…)

There were very few Santa Rosa faces to be seen at the Petaluma county fair meetings, but James P. Clark was Fair Marshal several times during the following dozen years. I can’t determine exactly what that position meant at the time but it was listed directly after president of the society, so apparently it was an important hands-on job and not ceremonial.

Our present Santa Rosa fairgrounds has roots that go back to 1878, when members of the racing crowd formed the “Sonoma County Agricultural Park Association” to buy the original 80-something acres (every account differs as to the exact size). And there was Clark again, not only as treasurer – and later president – of the group but also building the mile track. They began hosting races the following year.

There’s quite an extensive description of the place from 1881 (transcribed below) when JP Clark led a tour. The original grandstand was nothing like we imagine today; it was basically a large 3 bedroom house with dining room, living room, two fireplaces plus a bar room. Upstairs there was seating for 300, but it’s unclear whether this was cantilevered like a typical grandstand; it might have been a big open-air gallery, as the reporter also mentions a deep veranda on the ground floor.

Santa Rosa (or at least, the Democrat newspaper) again claimed the County Fair title in 1883, but it was formally the “first annual exhibit of the Sonoma County Agricultural Park Association.” The title really didn’t matter at that point, I suppose, as the fair in Petaluma continued as always, held a week earlier. Newly built at Santa Rosa that year was a big pavilion for a “pumpkin and turnip show,” as such produce and handiwork exhibitions were nicknamed.

Here I must confess to Gentle Reader that I suffer an OCD weakness to completely read every list of entries from those exhibitions; I am equally fascinated by discovering long lost 19th century arts and crafts along with my amazement at some of the absurd stuff people wanted to show off. Among the offerings at that 1883 fair were Mrs. R. McGeorge’s wax dowers (fake pearls or flowers molded out of sealing wax); corn on a stalk from William Moss; Frank White’s mangel wortzels (sic: mangelwurzel, an inedible beet); and from E. W. Davis, brooms. How I could go on…

Even the Petaluma papers tacitly conceded that Santa Rosa’s doings were now the “Sonoma County Fair,” so peg 1883 as the birth year for the Sonoma County Fairgrounds – although it wouldn’t be that for very long.

The latter part of the 1880s were boom years in Santa Rosa, the town propelled forward by easy money and a frenzy of construction. James P. Clark’s racetrack was now called the fastest in the state and the Association joined the northern racing circuit, which meant that almost all of the horses running at the track were from out of the area, and maybe out of the state; gone was any pretense that it was still a county-centric event. Part of the scene was also the opening of “Kroncke’s Park” in 1886, giving Santa Rosa its first real park – albeit one that charged admission. The park often had novelty events on weekends and underwrote fares on excursion trains from San Francisco, which brought up daytripping city folk as well as hoodlums wanting to get drunk and brawl. It’s likely no coincidence that the worst violence seemed to come when an excursion coincided with race week at the fair, as it did in 1887.

It was around this time that Santa Rosa’s history took a dark turn. The professional horse races brought in professional gamblers and the town came to welcome them by throwing out state and city betting laws. By the time this was exposed in 1905, Santa Rosa was a corrupt “wide-open town” where police tolerated criminal activity. Even though local children were found gambling at roulette wheels and crap tables in the backrooms of downtown saloons and hotels, this illegal gambling was condoned, even encouraged, by the City Council – as well as by the Press Democrat. For more, see the “WIDE-OPEN TOWN” series.

1899raceThe racetrack and fairgrounds were privately owned for most of that time, the Association having sold it in 1890 to Ira Pierce, a wealthy San Francisco horseman. Locals bemoaned this meant the end of horse racing in Santa Rosa, as Pierce was mainly interested in using it for training his own stable of horses at first. After several years he began hosting annual Breeders’ Association races around the turn of the century (1898, 1899, 1901, 1904, 1905, 1907 and 1908, if anyone cares, with races at the District Fair filling in the gap years 1900 and 1903).

He formally renamed it the Santa Rosa Stock Farm in 1900. That year the Sonoma-Marin Fair – which had not held since 1896 – was revived and hosted in Santa Rosa, but not at the fairgrounds. Pierce allowed his track to be used for races that one year, but the exhibitions were at Ridgway Hall on Third Street and the livestock were shown at the Fifth street stockyard. The fair repeated in 1901 and 1902 but without the races, and now it was called a “big street fair.” Fourth street was spanned by a canvas tent for free concerts and vaudeville shows.

Pierce and his brother sold the (old) race track (and stock farm) (at Agricultural Park) – among the name variations used by the Press Democrat – in 1911, and the next year it was owned by two local men: C. C. Donovan and his brother, Ney. Their first plan was to subdivide it for homes; it hadn’t been a fairgrounds for nearly a quarter century at that point.

That could have been the final end of this evolutionary branch, but the Donovans had incentives to restore it as a racetrack and fairgrounds. There was $1800 being held by the District Agricultural Fair Association ever since the last one, and the legislature approved even larger appropriations to promote District fairs with Sonoma county getting $4k of that money. So once again Santa Rosa hosted the Sonoma-Marin District Fair in 1913.

This was the first Sonoma County Fair that would seem familiar to today’s fairgoers. From the Press Democrat:


The pavilion in which the great agricultural and horticultural display will be made will be brilliantly lighted, as will the other exhibit stands and places and grounds. There will be something to entertain the crowd all the time. Hoffman of Sacramento will have some good attractions for the “Midway Plaisance.” Spectacular features will be pulled off each night, and two nights of the week an added attraction will be a grand display of fireworks. The electrical effects on the grounds and at the entrance arch are to be something very fine.

This would have been one of the great fairs to attend in a Wayback Machine. Both Jack London and Luther Burbank were on hand (showing cattle and “famed creations,” respectively). The centerpiece of the pavilion was an illuminated globe covered with dried apples and prunes, for some reason. The exhibits included Pomo basketry collections, A. C. Hessell’s corn on stalk, Mrs. G. R. Unzelman’s jabots, Mrs. Hawley’s crochet tidy, and Mrs. Edith M. Davis’ angora and persian cats. There was a “Better Baby” contest. (“There will be no prizes for mere prettiness. The babies will be judged by scientific methods. Not only will they be judged but an endeavor will be made from year to year to raise the standard of babies.”) On closing night there was a “Mardi Gras” on the Midway.

That incarnation of the County Fair lasted until 1916. It was revived with great enthusiasm in 1920; the fairgrounds received a major facelift and they even built a new grandstand which could hold 2,000. That year proved to be ill-fated. On Saturday a stunt pilot crashed his plane and died in front of the audience; on Sunday two race car drivers were killed along with a 7 year-old boy watching outside the fence. And just prior to that Sunday accident a man working at a concession stand noticed flames were licking up one of the support posts of the grandstand, a fire presumably started by a cigarette dropped in the sawdust under the newly-built stands. Quick work by him and a Deputy Sheriff put out the fire with none of the audience the wiser. “Had it become known among the crowd that an incipient fire was burning under the stand it is considered almost certain that there would have been a panic,” commented the Press Democrat.

Those incidents may have contributed to moving the fair to the Cotati Speedway in 1921, followed by two years back in Petaluma as the Sonoma-Marin Fair (featuring Egg Day!) but after that there were no more fairs here by any name for more than a decade. In 1931 the grandstand in Santa Rosa was razed again and a golf course constructed in the middle of the race track. The property was primarily used by a riding club, for horse boarding, and rented by visiting circuses.

And finally came 1936, the year that the Sonoma County Fair & Exposition, Inc. considers Year One, ignoring everything that had happened up to then.

Reviving the fair was a team effort of the Chamber of Commerce and all the other booster groups, with leadership from Joseph T. Grace and Ernest Finley, the PD’s editor-publisher. Finley made it clear in an editorial that there would be no more of this “Agricultural District Fair” crap – this was to be branded as the Sonoma County Fair, by god, and it was gonna make Santa Rosa a force that would command R.E.S.P.E.C.T. His obit said Finley regarded this as his finest achievement along with the campaign for the Golden Gate Bridge.

That fair was unabashedly an excuse for horse racing; there was surprisingly little else to see or do, although there was – significantly – a floral show, where Mrs. H. J. Holtorf of Graton took home an astonishing number of ribbons. Some local bands played concerts (see photo at top, courtesy Sonoma County Library) and there was a talent contest that stretched over several days, the big winner being Vera Potapoff for her dead-on impersonation of Popeye.

How things have changed since then; the races have increasingly taken a back seat to all other entertainments at the Sonoma County Fair in the decades since, and as the Press Democrat recently noted, interest in horse racing has particularly declined sharply over the last decade, and betting along with it.

But there’s still one year back then worth revisiting: 1945. When the gates opened on September 22 to the “Victory Fair,” the air must have been electric with excitement. The fair went on hiatus in 1943, when the fairgrounds were used as Regimental headquarters for the Ohio National Guard 107th Cavalry, which patrolled the North Coast that year. There was no fair in 1944 either, but come September 1945, the war had ended just weeks before; returning soldiers and sailors by the thousands were stepping off ships and airplanes nearly every day in San Francisco. Over 10,000 were jammed into the fairgrounds on the afternoon of that first day and over 11k the next, both remarkable because Santa Rosa’s population was about 15,000. The Press Democrat offered a picture of the grandstand looking down from the high back wall: “Like Sardines,” was the photo caption. “City Overflows With Visitors,” was another headline.

Alas, the PD chose to focus almost entirely on the races – which horse had the best odds, was scratched from the racecard, won the biggest purse. Stuff that no one cared about even a day later. What a lost opportunity; that was surely the happiest Sonoma County Fair in its history, and an unforgettable moment in the lives of everyone there. How rare it is that we can point to a spot on the calendar and say, yeah, that really was the best of times.

Press Democrat, September 22 1945
Press Democrat, September 22 1945

 

sources
Jockey Club. — All persons who are interested in, or lovers of, Fine stock are requested to meet at the Court House in Santa Rosa, on Wednesday, Feb. 22d, at 2 o’clock, p. m., for the purpose of forming a Jockey Club.

 

Mr. Clark, of the Union stable, is preparing an excellent track, and putting up the necessary buildings to accommodate trainers and their stock, which he will have in readiness by the time the sporting season comes on.

– Sonoma Democrat, February 9 1860

 

A VISIT TO THE RACE TRACK. — We had the pleasure a few days since of a visit to the Santa Rosa Race Course, where the Fall races of the Sonoma County Jockey Club are announced to take place in September. The track is a new one just being made by Mr. Clark, of this place. The location is excellent and the grounds good, and the proprietor has displayed both good taste and judgement in the selection. Mr. Clark has erected twelve excellent stalls and is progressing rapidly with the other work in and about the course, and by the time the races come off everything will be in excellent condition….

– Sonoma Democrat, July 19 1860

 

CROWDED BUT LIVELY. — Since the Fair commenced, Santa Rosa has been crowded, and presents a lively appearance. The gambling fraternity, as was expected, are largely represented. We have noticed but little drunkenness, comparatively, but whiskey has been the cause of several fights; among them one in which a deadly weapon was used. On Wednesday evening a difficulty occurred in a gambling house between several persons. Harry Howe interfered on behalf of a friend in settling the affair, and after, as Howe supposed, the matter had been arranged, and he was walking down Main street, he was fired upon with a pistol, it is thought in the hands of the person with whom his friend had been quarreling. The ball entered the calf of his left leg. The wounded man was attended by Dr. Green of Napa, who extracted the ball from the instep of the foot. Howe was at last accounts, “doing as well as could be expected.” A fight occurred at the race track on Tuesday. One of the combatants was badly whipped.

– Sonoma Democrat, September 26 1861

 

RACE TRACK.—The race track which we spoke of as being under headway a short time since, on James P. Clark’s ranch, about a mile and a half from town, is now finished and in good condition for training purposes. The track is a circle one, half mile in length, and the soil of such a nature that there is no danger of injuring the feet of horses. A number of gentlemen are training their horses at the new track, and it is rumored that in about two weeks the first races will come off. We hope this may prove a success, as it will encourage the raising of fine stock in the county.

– Sonoma Democrat, May 29 1869

 

THE CLARK ADDITION.—This property, belonging to James P. Clark, Esq., consists of some forty acres of as rich land as can be found in the county. It is close by the depot, and has been surveyed and laid off in town lots, the dimensions of which are 40×100. In a short time all will be disposed of, as we understand they are to be offered for sale at a very liberal figure.

– Sonoma Democrat, November 19 1870

 

Race Course and Fair Grounds. —A movement is on foot to establish a race course and fair grounds near this city. The location spoken of is on the lands of Mrs. Hendley, three-fourths of a mile south east of the plaza. The track will be one mile in length, and nearly elliptical in form. A diagram of the grounds and proposed location of the buildings and stands has been made by Captain J. T, Kingsbury.

– Sonoma Democrat, August 11 1877

 

The Agricultural Park.

The talk that has been indulged in for so long by our citizens relative to the construction of an Agricultural Park, has at length culminated in the purchase of a tract of about ninety acres from Mrs. Headley for that purpose. The land was surveyed on Saturday and the bargain closed.

That such an enterprise will be of incalculable benefit is a self-evident proposition, and now that the movement seems to be fairly inaugurated, we hope it will be carried on successfully and to the satisfaction of all.

The probable expense of getting the matter under way, and of fitting up the grounds, can hardly be estimated. A mile track is to graded, leveled and fenced; the entire grounds must be enclosed; a number of sheds for the stabling of stock and storing of feed must be provided; and last and greatest expense of all, a pavilion must be erected.

The means taken to raise the money for the purchase of the land, was by circulating the following petition: We, the undersigned, hereby agree to pay, in gold coin, the respective amounts set opposite our names for the purpose of raising $7,000 tor the purchase of 95 acres of land of Mrs. Hendley, to build and erect an agricultural park. Said land being situated on the south side of the Bennett Valley road, one-fourth mile east of the Petaluma road, and being distant from the Court House three-fourths of a mile. The following fourteen Gentlemen and firms have subscribed $500 each…

No plan for the erection of the buildings and completing the other improvements has been matured. The gentlemen above mentioned will doubtless hold a meeting soon to inaugurate some system, and then let their plans be submitted to our citizens.

We feel assured that the institution will be a success, and we hope that our citizens will aid in the advancement of the enterprise, and hope that the “Sonoma County Agricultural Society” will be one of our best and most promising County institutions.

– Sonoma Democrat, December 7 1878

 

THE FIRST RACES.

The first races over on Sonoma County Agricultural Park Association’s track were held on Thursday, in spite of the short notice and in consequence the meager amount of advertising the races were well attended. The arrangements were not perfected until late late week, and the whole affair may be considered impromptu and by no means the formal opening of the track. The track is still heavy not having had the benefit of a winter’s rain, but is other* wise in excellent condition. ..

– Sonoma Democrat, October 11 1879

 

Agricultural Park Association.

Prominent among the important enterprises which have been started in Santa Rosa, the Sonoma County Agricultural Park Association deserves mention as being one much conducive to business interests and the welfare of our city generally. It was incorporated on January 11th, 1879, the charter members being… During the month of January, 1879, 60 acres of land south-east of Santa Rosa, and lying partly within the city limits, were purchased for $6,000, and work immediately commenced on the construction of a race track and for the beautifying of the grounds. The present stockholders are… The officers are: President, James P. Clark: Treasurer, Geo. P. Noonan; Secretary, Chas. Hoffer…

Last Wednesday, through the kindness of Mr. J. P. Clark, behind Lake and Black Jimmy, a spanking team, we had the pleasure of a drive over the track and grounds of the Association. Leading from the Petaluma road eastward, a short stretch up Bennett Avenue brought us to a drive, having on each side a row of poplars and at the end of which is the main entrance to the grounds. The track, which is one mile in length, and the soil of which consists of loam and sand has been so thoroughly worked that it has remained in good condition, notwithstanding the late very severe storm, is said by experts to be the best in the State, Among the many whose opinions are worthy of note are… all of whom concur in proclaiming that it is unequaled anywhere and is all that could be desired by the most exacting horseman….The grand stand which is a model of architecture, was completed yesterday by our well known builder. Hank C. Paul, at a cost of $2,500. It is situated on the east side of and 50 feet from the track and covers a space of 36×60 feet. It consists of two stories, having an elevation of 28 feet. In the upper portion of the building are comfortable seats for 300 spectators and from which an excellent view of all points of the track may be had. In the lower story on entering the main hall, which is six feet wide, the first room on the right is the sitting room 12½x14 feet; then there are three bedrooms, each of which is 12 feet square; on the left a dining-room 12½x26, a kitchen 12½x14, and a bar-room 12×21 feet go to make up the complement. Besides these there are wide halls throughout the building. The ceilings and walls, the former of which are 10 feet high in the clear, are constructed of grooved lumber. Two fireplaces lend to the comfort of guests and a porch 18×60 feet serves to protect spectators from any inclemencies of the weather. The whole, painted white, surmounted by a flag-staff 32 feet high, and so thoroughly constructed as it is, is one of the most beautiful and substantial buildings in our city and an honor to the contractor, Mr. Paul. There are about the grounds large numbers of trees—ash. maple, poplar, locust and evergreens in abundance, which as yet have not attained a full growth, but which in time will make the whole a handsome picture. Mr. Clark informs us that it is the intention of the Association to plant 2,500 Monterey cypress trees about one foot a part from the first quarter pole to opposite the third quarter pole, and around the fence of the entire grounds an evergreen hedge. North-east of the track there are fifty stables of an improved pattern, having every convenience for attending to the racer in a proper manner. There are two large tanks used as reservoirs for supplying water for sprinkling. A handsome building for the judges has been erected opposite the grand stand and from which an excellent view of the track can be obtained. The drainage system, now very good, is to be improved, and here we might also remark that the City Council propose widening to 60 feet Bennett Avenue, which leads to the grounds…

– Sonoma Democrat, March 5 1881

 

Sonoma County Agricultural Course.

As early as 1860 the citizens of Santa Rosa wore impressed with the idea that a race course would be an advantageous adjunct to the permanent improvement of the town, as well as the improvement of stock in the country around. Accordingly in the Fall of that year through the liberality of James P. Clark, who owned the land about where the depot now stands, and a few enterprising citizens, a course was built and a set of purses given to be contended for, to which contest the neighboring counties of Sonoma, Napa and Marin were invited. During that year, Orphan Bay, owned by Dr. Williams of Mendocino, Dashaway, owned by Achillis Grigsby of Napa, and several running celebrities put in an appearance. The track was kept up until the next year, 1861, when the second Agricultural Fair was held, when it was used as the Fair track and several very creditable races were run. The track was only of a temporary character, not fenced, nor graded, and the public spirit of the citizens not proving adequate to the expense of keeping up a good track, it was allowed to go into decline and was plowed up and turned into a grain field. Afterward it was laid off into lots and now forms a beautiful portion of the incorporated city of Santa Rosa. Scarcely a year has passed since that time, that the subject of the importance of a good race course has not been broached by some of our citizens, until in 1878, a few individuals formed themselves into a joint stock company and inaugurated an enterprise which has culminated in the establishment of one of the finest running and trotting courses in the United States. It is known as the Sonoma County Agricultural Park, is situated about one mile south of the Court House, is equal to and not surpassed by any course in the State. The Association have made arrangements for a meeting in August next, for two and three-year-olds owned in the District, composed of Sonoma, Napa, Solano and Marin, in each of which there are already nine entries. A visit to the Park on Sunday last, took us somewhat by surprise, not only at the conveniences of the track but the number that have taken advantage of them for the purpose of training. We found there the following: In the stable in charge of Guadeloupe Carrillo, a beautiful blood bay, five years old by Bayswater, owned by John Merritt…

– Sonoma Democrat, May 21 1881

 

Our Exhibition.

Frank H. Swett, Superintendent of the pavilion informs us that applications for space are coming in thick and fast, each day, and every arrival of the mail brings new ones. Sufficient applications have already been made to assure the success of the pavilion exhibition. We learn incidentally that Mrs. C. E. Pope is engaged in making a handsome satin and silk bedspread which will be placed on exhibition, and our Artist M. Schramm is prepared to cover over 200 square feet with an exhibition of oil paintings, crayons, etchings and every variety of photographic art. The entries to the races are filling rapidly and will be ready for publication in a few days. Mr. Laughlin Superintendent of the stock exhibition thinks there is not enough stalls to accommodate those desirous of exhibiting. We have already mentioned the fact that Sylvester Scott will place some of his pure bred stock on exhibition, and Wm. Bihler has sent up for space of nine stalls. Many others are coming in. Mr. Laughlin says that Uncle Jerry Beam is keeping a register of persons applying for space in the stock yards, for the convenience of all, as he resides in Santa Rosa and can be readily found at any time.

– Sonoma Democrat, August 11 1883

 

THE SONOMA COUNTY FAIR.
The Opening — Prospects of a Successful Fair — Large Number of Exhibits — Banquet in the Evening.

FIRST DAY.

Santa Rosa, August 16th. – The morning of the first day of Fair week dawned deliciously cool and refreshing. The remnants of the heavy fog of the night previous lingered till long after breakfast hour. Nature seemed to smile in her happiest mood as if to sanction the efforts being made at our beautiful fair grounds for the propagation of the industry of our county. Early in the forenoon the carriages and vehicles of all descriptions began wending their way out to the grounds. As we approach the large enclosure the eye is struck with the beauty of the surroundings as viewed from the avenue. In the foreground is the large line of stalls with their coat of white, almost blinding to the eye. As we near the entrance the soft, mellow lowing of the kine, reminding one of the old-fashioned barnyard they love so well to recall. Further on a glimpse of the track is seen now and then, dotted here and there with the flyers destined to afford the visitors so much pleasure in the days to follow. Then there is the pavilion and grandstand looming up high above the surrounding tents and booths. As we near the gate the whole panorama-like scene, alive with busy life, bursts upon the view. At the gate the familiar face of “Gee Whack” meets our gaze, dispelling all sentimental thoughts occasioned by the lovely morning. But, stop! No entrance fee is charged this morning. “Has the enchanting morning rendered the Directors generous?” No, it’s the first day, and things have not settled down to their natural groove — business has not begun. Once inside, one begins to question within himself, which way first. The horses are being exercised, and the question is soon answered, as we find ourself gradually approaching the spectators that are congregated near the grand stand watching the noble animals as they whirl by, and on around the course. The familiar names of the noted trotters are called out as each favorite passes and is followed with glowing eye, until followed by another, and another. Even the horses seem to feel the magical influence of the perfect morning. Their nostrils dilate as they quaff deep draughts of the pure air, direct from the heavens. After watching the course and its occupants for some time we wander on and enter the pavilion. The exhibitors have just begun to arrange their goods, and one is not able to chain his attention to any one thing, so great is the hurry and bustle…

– Sonoma Democrat, August 21 1886

 

The Circuit Is Still Open.

The question has been asked whether, if the Agricultural Park is sold, Santa Rosa will be assigned a position in the northern circuit as formerly. One of the Directors of the Association says that it was only by special request that the Santa Rosa track was given a place in the circuit two years ago, and that it will be admitted on the same conditions if Mr. Pierce, the purchaser, carries out his intention of holding annual race meetings, concerning which there seems to be little doubt.

– Daily Democrat, March 22 1890

 

WHAT WILL BE DONE ABOUT IT?

We quote from the Breeder and Sportsman: “An item under the heading of Turf and Track, informs the public that the Directors of the Santa Rosa Association have had their annual meeting and elected new officers for the ensuing year. So far so good, but there is a line or two at the end of the item which calls for comment. ‘The sentiment of the Board is opposed to holding a fair or races this year, unless a disposition different from that of former years is manifested by the people in this part of the country.’ It seems a shame that such a resolution was passed, and yet the Directors were compelled in justice to themselves to let the people of Santa Rosa know that there would be no more racing at that point, unless the citizens are willing to financially assist the gentlemen who usually have to put their hands in their pockets and pay a deficiency each year. During the year 1889, Napa made money, and Petaluma scored a financial success, but Santa Rosa lost. There Santa Rosa people at the Petaluma race track on one certain day, than there were Santa Rosa residents on any day at the track during the late Santa Rosa Meeting. They seem to have lost all interest in their own town and are all looking for the almighty dollar, without giving the requisite support to those who are trying to keep up the sport of the kings at that point. From the present outlook, Santa will be dropped from the circuit and it is nothing more than is due to the Santa Rosans for the lukewarm manner in which they have supported the late Directors in their efforts to secure good sport. What is to he done in the matter?

It is hardly possible that our horsemen, with all the eclat attaching to them through the fame of Anteeo and his progeny, with other promising developments, will allow the well improved Park course to deteriorate back into a grain field, or be cut up into town lots.

The stock of the association consists of 2,500 shares, the par value of which is $10 per share, making a capital of $25,000. The property embraces eighty acres of land, well improved, part of which is within the corporate limits of the city, 300 stalls for horses and cattle, a grand stand with seating capacity for 3,500 people, a commodious pavilion, water tanks and pipes, a growing park of nut and evergreen trees, and a cypress hedge around three-fourths of the track… Here, it seems to us, is an opportunity for some good conductor of a racetrack to make an investment which properly managed,should pay handsomely. Something should be done at once and we hope our local stockbreeders will give the matter serious consideration. If they do not then, Mr. Breeder and Sportsman, it will be in hand for you to send somebody with capital up to look into the matter.

– Sonoma Democrat, January 25 1890

 

THE RACE MEETING.
Highly Probable That the Matter Will Be Carried Through.

Santa Rosa horsemen are much interested in the proposed races to be held here, Frank Burke, one of the most prominent members of the Breeder’s Association, has signified bis intention of seeing what arrangements can be made about securing the track and giving Santa Rosa a first-class race meeting. There is not time enough for the local horsemen to arrange for the meeting, but the Association, being in the business, could handle the muter with more ease and facility.

The track is in good shape, and but little work would be required to place it in prime form.

There is not a question of the feasibility of the proposition. The races heretofore have always been satisfactory from a pecuniary point of view and the receipts from the meeting would leave a comfortable sum over the expenditures.

A large number of our business men would help raise the necessary money. Every one interested in racing speaks of the favorable condition for a race meeting. The failure of Petaluma to bold the annual race meeting leaves a vacancy in the racing circuit that we can easily fill with the assistance of the Breeder’s Association, who, it is believed, will be willing to take the matter in charge.

– Sonoma Democrat, August 3 1895

 

THE TRACK GOSSIP
Fine Horses and Trainers are Arriving Here Daily
Magnificent String of Racing Stock at the Track Ready for the Great Meet

A good many people were out bright and early at the Santa Rosa stock farm track yesterday and found much pleasure in watching the trotters and pacers work, training for the race meet.

A look at the fine animals at the track now from many places in the state, is sufficient to warrant anyone in saying that the race meet which opens here on Saturday afternoon, will be successful from start to finish.

The track gossip among the trainers and drivers already here is that some records will be established at the meet on a fast track, records which will cause the grand stand to open up with applause… There is no question but that next week will be a great occasion for Santa Rosa and Sonoma county.

– Press Democrat, August 17 1898

 

SANTA ROSA RACES
Nearly Two Hundred Horses Already at the Track
The Fastest Trotters and Pacers in the State Will Start at the August Meeting Here

A scene of great activity is to be witnessed at the Santa Rosa race track every morning when the light harness horses are brought out for their regular work preparatory to the races to be given by the Pacific Coast Trotting Horse Breeders Association which will commence on August 14th and continue for one week. More interest is being taken throughout the East in harness racing this year and the meetings on the Grand Circuit there are drawing the largest crowds of people that have attended the races for many years past. With the district fair appropriations restored in California a prosperous racing season is assured fur those interested, and more horses are in training this year than for several seasons past. The prospects are that the meeting at Santa Rosa will show some of the most exciting contests to capture the big purses offered, that have over taken place on this coast…

– Press Democrat, August 2 1899

 

COMING RACES WILL ATTRACT BIG CROWDS

All roads and all trains will lead to Santa Rosa during Fourth of July week, and with the double attraction of a grand celebration on the Fourth and the races to be given by the Pacific Coast Trotting Horse Breeders’ association the county seat of Sonoma county will contain several thousand more people than its regular residents. The California Northwestern railway will run excursions from all points on its line to Santa Rosa on the Fourth of July at half fare. The day will certainly be a gala one and a red-letter event in the history of the county…

– Press Democrat, June 27 1900

 

RACE MEET OPENS
Good Day’s Sport At the Local Track
Auspicious Beginning of the First Annual Meeting of the Santa Rosa Racing Association

Lined up against the infield fence at Pierce Bros.’ track yesterday afternoon were most if not all ot Santa Rosa’s swellest turnouts. The occasion was the opening of the first annual meet of the Santa Rosa Racing Association, and the local admirers of the thoroughbred were out in good force.

The ladies were especially in evidence and the fluttering of ribbons and summer fineries added much to the gaiety of the scene. The day was ideal and the track was fast. Music by Parks’ full orchestra filled in the time between heats and, taken all in all, the occasion was a very auspicious one. The attendance was fully up to the average first day’s turnout and considerable money changed hands, the bookies, it is said, quitting losers.

This is the first time in twelve years that Santa Rosans have had the privilege of witnessing running races at the local track, and the interest taken in the bang-tails showed that the oldtime tendency of the public is still there…

– Press Democrat, August 13 1901

 

SANTA ROSA PROUD
LOU DILLON’S GREAT ACHIEVEMENT CAUSES MUCH ENTHUSIASM HERE
The World’s Record Breaker Was Born, Raised and Trained at the Santa Rosa Stock Farm

When the news was received here Monday and displayed on the Press Democrat bulletin board that Lou Dillon, the Santa Rosa mare, had lowered the world’s record to two minutes at Readville, Mass., enthusiasm ran high among the horsemen and citizens generally, who were greatly pleased at the worldwide reputation the City of Roses had gained in producing the fastest trotter in the world.

Lou Dillon, in her wonderful race on Monday, greatly exceeded what the world of sport expected she would do. During the afternoon and evening men gathered in knots of twos and threes and later in greater numbers, and the mare’s achievement was the one topic of conversation. It seemed like a dream to the horsemen. At first it seemed too good to be true.

– Press Democrat, August 25 1903

 

133 ENTRIES FOR SANTA ROSA RACES
THREE BIG EVENTS EACH DAY WITH AN AVERAGE OF OVER ELEVEN ENTRIES IN EACH

[..]

– Press Democrat, June 12 1904

FINE ENTRANCE TO THE RACE TRACK

A fine entrance to the race track and stock farm where the big district fair will be held is being erected, and when completed it will be most attractive. During fair week it will be a blaze of electric globes. In fact, it is planned to string lights from Fourth street to the entrance of the grounds as a part of the exterior decoration.

– Press Democrat, July 26 1913

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redwoodhighway

YESTERDAY IS JUST AROUND THE CORNER (PART I)

“The past is never dead. It’s not even past” is a flippant line tossed off in a novel by William Faulkner (don’t bother reading it; I did one college summer, when I thought Faulkner novels were something I just had to learn to appreciate, more the fool I) and that quote reflects the theme of the book, which is about the terrible prices we often pay for long-ago mistakes. In recent years it’s been misappropriated to mean history in general, particularly as an upbeat catchphrase for historic places. That meaning fits the town of Sonoma, with its adobes haunted by Vallejo’s ghosts, or Petaluma, with much of its downtown undisturbed since Mark Twain wrote Huckleberry Finn. But Santa Rosa – not so much. Here the phrase has to be used in its original intent, to express the unhappy ways we are dogged by our past.

This is the 700th article to appear in this journal, which now clocks in at over 1.5 million words (I have statistically typed the letter “e” about 190,530 times but the letter “z” merely 1,110). Normally such a milestone is an occasion for a “best of” recap but I did that not so long ago back at #650 with “650 KISSES DEEP,” so instead I’d like to step back and reflect on some of the reasons Santa Rosa came to be the way it is today.

This is also timely because right now (summer 2019) the city is working on the Downtown Station Area Specific Plan which “seeks to guide new development with a view to creating a vibrant urban center with a distinct identity and character.” The plan calls for wedging up to 7,000 more housing units into the downtown area, which will be quite a trick.

There are limits to what developers can build, in part because this is a high-risk earthquake zone (a 1 in 3 chance we will have a catastrophe within the next 26 years), but a greater obstacle is that Santa Rosa is uniquely burdened by layers of bad decisions made over several decades.

THE ORIGINAL DOWNTOWN PLAN   Santa Rosa’s prime underlying problem is (literally) underlying. Scrape off the present downtown buildings and we have the same frontier village that was platted way back in 1853, when there was only one house (Julio Carrillo’s), a store, a tavern and stray pigs. It was small enough for anyone to walk across any direction in a couple of minutes or three – 70 total acres from the creek to Fifth street, from E to A street.

Now eight score and five years since, our downtown core is virtually unchanged from that original street grid – minus the 40 acres lopped off for the highway and mall – so there ain’t much room on the dance floor for developers to make any sort of dramatic moves.

Not that people haven’t envisioned a better downtown. In 1945 architect “Cal” Caulkins created a plan which eliminated Courthouse Square and turned almost all of the space between First and Third streets into a Civic Center. No question: This was the best of all possible Santa Rosas, as I wrote in “THE SANTA ROSA THAT SHOULD HAVE BEEN.” The plan had universal and enthusiastic support and only needed voter approval of a $100k bond to get started. It lost by 96 votes on a ballot crowded with other bond measures. Attempts by the Chamber of Commerce to revive a modified version of the design in 1953 went nowhere.

Another big attempt to fix Santa Rosa’s design problems came in 1960-1961, when the city’s new Redevelopment Agency hired urban design experts from New Jersey. Some of their ideas were pretty good; they envisioned a pedestrian-friendly city with mini-parks, tree-lined boulevards and a greenway along both banks of a fully restored Santa Rosa Creek. Their objective was for the public to drive to a parking garage/lot as easily as possible and walk.

Over the following years came a succession of consultants and developers with both detailed schemes and spitballing proposals, mainly focused on revitalizing Fourth street by making it more walkable. (Most innovative was an idea to rip out the roadway and replace it with an artificial creek criss-crossed by little footbridges.) In 1981 it was rechristened the “Fourth Street Mall” and closed to autos on Friday and Saturday nights to squash the local street cruising fad.

Tinkering does not a city remake, and downtown is still as it always was, an Old West village square. As I’ve joked before, the town motto should be changed from “The City Designed For Living” to “The City Designed For Living…During the Gold Rush.”

THE PRICE OF PARKING   Or maybe the motto should be, “The City Designed For Buggies.”

For a city with such a small downtown, Santa Rosa devotes a big hunk of that footprint to automobile parking, with nine lots and five garages. Yet should even half of the new residents in those 7,000 proposed apartments/condos have a car, every single parking spot will be taken – and then some.

Santa Rosa has always had a fraught relationship with autos, and it’s again because so much of the core area is unchanged from its buggywhip days. Once beyond the eight square blocks around Courthouse Square many of the old residential streets are so narrow that parking is not allowed on both sides and it’s still a squeeze when trucks or SUVs pass. Again, high-density development would be tough. (The exception is College ave. which is quite wide because they drove cattle down the street from the Southern Pacific depot on North street to the slaughterhouse near Cleveland ave.)

Complaints about downtown parking go back to 1910, when farmers coming to town in their wagons for Saturday shopping found fewer hitching posts available. In 1912 the city finally gave in and set up the vacant lot at Third and B streets as a kind of horse parking lot.

Fourth street between A and B streets c. 1922-1925. Postcard courtesy Larry Lapeere Collection
Fourth street between A and B streets c. 1922-1925. Postcard courtesy Larry Lapeere Collection

From the 1920s onward, photos of downtown show seemingly every parking spot taken. There was no shortage of articles in the Press Democrat detailing the latest plans to solve the parking problem – including 1937’s increased fines for every additional violation, which reveals a major drawback of living in a small town where the Meter Lady knows everybody.

The crisis came 1945-1946, when the city introduced parking meters along with Santa Rosa’s first sales tax, both to predictable taxpayer howls. The Press Democrat’s letter section saw writers interchangeably angry between the tax and the parking meters and although the tax was only one percent, there were calls for a complete boycott of the downtown as a kind of Boston Tea Party protest. On top of that, street parking was dreaded because the city insisted upon parallel parking only, even though merchants had been protesting it for many years. (Those pre-1950 land-yachts did not have power steering, so turning the wheels when the car was not in motion was a helluva workout.) For more on all this feuding see: “CITY OF ROSES AND PARKING METERS.”

2 tons of American steel
2 tons of American steel

Whilst the normally peaceable citizens of Santa Rosa were stabbing their City Councilman dolls with voodoo pins, a guy named Hugh Codding was building a new shopping center he called Montgomery Village. It opened in 1950 with an advertising blitz promoting no sales tax (because it was outside of city limits) and easy, meter-free parking. Shoppers flocked there. Thus closed the first chapter of a big book we might call, “A Series of City Hall’s Unfortunate Events.”

OUR WAY OR NO FREEWAY   City Hall alone was not to blame for all that era’s dreadful decisions; together with the Downtown Association and Chamber of Commerce they “sawed the town in half,” as a Press Democrat editor put it in the paper’s 1948 end of year wrapup.

As well known from old photos, the Redwood Highway – AKA Highway 101 – used to pass smack through downtown Santa Rosa, around Courthouse Square and up Mendocino ave. This traffic included not only your aunt Ginny running errands across town but big trucks passing through with redwood logs, cattle, farm equipment and such. It may have looked like the City of Roses, but it probably smelled like the City of Diesel.

prop2In 1938 there was a municipal bond measure to fund an alt truck route around downtown. It failed to pass but would have pushed all that heavy traffic over to Wilson street, which was the heart of our “Little Italy” community – although the ads for the bond pleaded it was urgently needed for the safety of our school children, that concern apparently didn’t extend to the Italian kids. Backers also warned this truck route was necessary because the State Highway Commission might otherwise build a bypass and turn Santa Rosa into a “ghost town.”

A couple of years passed. The city’s Grand Poobahs were still stuck on the idea of a truck route but now wanted it a block closer to downtown, on Davis st. (or rather, between Davis and Morgan streets). The state offered no firm counterproposal; maybe they would construct a bypass somewhere west of Santa Rosa or perhaps use the Davis st. route with a short five block overpass, similar to what they were currently building in San Rafael. Anyway, there was no urgency: The state estimated there were only 4,500 daily trips along this stretch of highway 101 (today there are about 100,000).

Come 1941, however, the Press Democrat front page screamed with 72-point headlines – not just about the war against Hitler, but the war against the Highway Commission.

“An insult to Santa Rosa!” raged a PD op/ed after the state announced it was going to build a 13 block overpass through the town, from Sebastopol road to Ninth st. The paper called this a “highway on stilts” and the Downtown Association lawyer said it would “create the impression that the city is nothing more or less than a ‘slough town.'”

Santa Rosa’s response came in another banner headline: “CITY TO BUILD ALTERNATE TRUCK HIGHWAY!” They quickly bought right-of-way from seven homeowners between South A and South Davis streets (moving one of the houses), paved the stub of a road, and because the Commission didn’t grunt in disapproval, the town declared victory. The next thing anyone knew was when a state engineer was found surveying for the overpass and told someone it was “absolutely necessary at this time.”

I will mercifully spare Gentle Reader the full drama of what happened between 1942 and 1948, except to say that the Press Democrat wore out its supply of lead type exclamation marks (“CITY TO FIGHT OVERHEAD HIGHWAY!”) as it breathlessly reported all the good news about how the damned “Stilt Road” was not just merely dead but really most sincerely dead. And then another surveyor showed up from Sacramento. Nope.

There were in toto six different routes under consideration by the Highway Commission; unfortunately, not all of them were detailed in any Sonoma county newspapers (as far as I can tell). There was always the threat of a complete western bypass, but it was never mentioned whether that route would have been Stony Point or Wright/Fulton, or both. Serious consideration was given an eastern route from Petaluma Hill road to North street, curving back to Redwood Highway/Mendocino ave. between Memorial Park and Lewis road – which would have brought the highway rumblings within earshot of the tony McDonald ave. neighborhood, of course.

The state finally relented and gave Santa Rosa what the Poobahs wanted – a ground-level freeway that mostly wiped out Davis street (it’s the same route of highway 101 today). There were eleven crossings on it between Sebastopol road and Steele lane so there were plenty of chances to turn off and do some shopping.

Building highway 101 in 1948. Photo courtesy Sonoma County Library
Building highway 101 in 1948. Photo courtesy Sonoma County Library

Our ancestors fought so fiercely for this layout because they believed the downtown business district would wither if there was a bypass – that Santa Rosa couldn’t survive unless shoppers were only seconds away from their favorite stores. But I suspect another reason was because they didn’t actually grasp the concept of freeways. It was the mid-1940s, remember, and the very first one in America (Pasadena to downtown Los Angeles) had been constructed just a few years before. From some of the remarks in the PD it appears they thought of an elevated freeway like a bridge, where there was no getting on or off in midspan; when road options were presented at hearings in Petaluma, state officials had to explain that a freeway included a certain number of on and off ramps.

By contrast, when Petaluma’s highway improvements came years later that town had the opposite attitude – the state could not build their downtown bypass fast enough. “Loss of the tourist trade will be more than offset by an increase in local trade,” their City Manager said before work began. Petaluma’s greatest concern was the route be chosen with care to avoid the “poultry belt” because of “the harmful effects of irregular noises, headlights and police sirens on white leghorns,” as a freeway skeptic remarked.

The grand opening of the “Santa Rosa Freeway” was May 20, 1949. Less than two months passed before the first fatality: George Dow was killed in July when a car turning onto West College crossed his southbound lane. After that someone died every ten weeks on the average until the PD wrote a 1950 editorial which began, “A state highway ‘deathway’ runs through Santa Rosa. It is mistakenly called a ‘freeway.'”

Remember the joke that a camel was a horse designed by a committee? This was a freeway designed by shopkeepers. Of the eleven crossings only seven had stoplights. The only turn lanes were on the southbound side for turning east onto Third, Fourth and Fifth streets – to make it easier to get downtown, of course – otherwise drivers shot across oncoming traffic. Crossings at Steele Lane, Fifth St. and Barham Ave. proved the most deadly and the city asked for more traffic lights; the state replied they would study the safety issues concerning the road they told us they did not want to build. Meanwhile, the speed limit was cranked down from 55 to 45 to 35 as the death toll mounted and the city discovered there was more cross-traffic than there were cars using the highway.

Then there was the community impact. The PD sent out a reporter in 1950 to talk to people living on the west side. He was told the freeway made them feel stigmatized – they were on the “wrong side of tracks.” And so they were; there were no parks around there at the time except for a single weedy lot. Their 400+ kids had to walk across the freeway to go to school (mainly Burbank Elementary), so the city built a pedestrian underpass at Ellis Street. It flooded during heavy rains.

There was no whitewashing the fact that the freeway was a disaster in every way, and no doubt about who was to blame for it being like that. But curiously, the Press Democrat no longer mentioned the names of the guys it had long praised for standing up to those smarty-pants state engineers just a few years earlier.

Santa Rosa’s City Manager Sam Hood spoke to the San Francisco Commonwealth Club in 1951 and said the “selfish interests” who were to blame for forcing through the ground-level roadway had come to find the freeway had no impact on their business at all. He added that if a vote were to be held that day – less than two years after the freeway opened – not one merchant would oppose a bypass.

The PD managed to both strongly condemn the freeway (“every intersection is a death-trap”) while making its original boosters – including the paper itself – even more anonymous in a 1956 editorial: “…well-intentioned Santa Rosans, laymen who thought they knew more than highly experienced and qualified engineers, who kicked, screamed and protested until they had their way – and saddled Santa Rosa with a classic example of what happens when local pressure-groups have their way.” So forgiving.

Santa Rosa finally yielded to the state and planning began for what we have today – an elevated highway 101 directly above the old ground level version. When work began the PD printed an Aug. 24, 1966 feature on the detour plans and expressed relief that the end was nigh for our “17-year-old mistake.” The new freeway opened October 1968 and cost $3.8M.

The old Santa Rosa Freeway may be no more but its terrible legacy remains, forever splitting the city between east and west. Whatever happens to this city – a population boom, catastrophic earthquake or fire, sweeping redevelopment or no development at all – that highway will endure and shape what we can do with our future. In Santa Rosa it will always be 1949.

NEXT: HOW WE LOST SANTA ROSA CREEK…
 

 

(Photo at top courtesy Larry Lapeere Collection)

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