A 1909 visitor to Santa Rosa  probably thought it was a cute little town - except for the godawful stink, of course.

The terrible smell came from the tanneries, which pinched downtown Santa Rosa on two sides. To the west was the Santa Rosa-Vallejo Tannery, which was at the modern location of the Hyatt. Just a few streets down from that on West 6th was the small Max Reuthershan tannery, which was likely the source of the high quality leather used by the Comstock family artisan partnership, "The Companeros." Even closer to downtown was the large Levin Brothers Tannery at the corner of 2nd and F street.* What they had in common was that each backed on to Santa Rosa Creek, from which they could draw an ample supply of free water - and sometimes illegally discharge waste in it.

(TOP: The leather finishing building of the Levin Brothers Tannery, facing Second street, c. 1908.
CLICK or TAP image to enlarge
BELOW: The rear of the finishing building is seen at left, connected by walkways to the section of the tannery with the vats and dryers. The rear of that building was adjacent to Santa Rosa Creek.)

Most (probably all) of the problems concerned the Levin Tannery, which was warned at least twice in the years before the 1906 earthquake to stop dumping its foul tannery vats into the creek. At a court hearing to address charges brought by a Fish and Game Commissioner, an expert testified that the concentrations of lime from the vats killed fish within a few minutes. Used to remove hair and prepare hides for tanning, lime was often mixed with other highly toxic agents such as cyanide.

That Second street tannery was also particularly lax about hygene, throwing hair and scrapings into an outdoor bin, causing the downwind part of town to smell offal (sorry).  After their 1906 court appearances the Levin brothers vowed to clean up their business, but didn't.

Come January, 1909, the community said enough was enough, and a group of 144 citizens hired a lawyer to present their petition to the City Council. Rehashed were the usual complaints about the stench and that workers were "...discharging the refuse matter, including poisonous chemicals, from its tannery and vats directly into Santa Rosa Creek." But this petition included a new line of attack: Since the law said all tanneries were prohibited within city limits, the company should be forced to shut down or move.

The petitioners were right: Santa Rosa Ordinance 179 stated that tanneries were a public nuisance and forbidden in town. But that law had been passed back in July, 1900 to block a fourth tannery from setting up shop; it was apparently presumed that the existing tanneries were grandfathered in. (In truth, we don't know exactly what Ordinance 179 stated; that page - and many others - can't be found in the city archives, leaving us with just the paraphrased wording presented by the 1909 petitioners.)

The City Council decided to first visit a large tannery in Stockton where they found a well-run operation free of complaints from the neighborhood. After that tour, they dithered for months. There was discussion of writing a new and more specific ordinance regarding tanneries, and again, the Levins promised to be good and obey the law. Mayor James Gray wanted to resolve the matter by fiat of declaring the public nuisance abated and allowing business to go on as usual. The one thing the Council did not want to do was to get tough with the tannery. The mayor was asked point-blank at a meeting if the city ever intended to enforce the law. "No," he said.

After six months of punting the ball, the petitioner's lawyer met with the City Attorney, who made a bizarre proposal that bordered on extortion: If Santa Rosa were to enforce its own law, the citizen's group would have to first put up a  $50,000 bond to indemnify the city "from any expense or loss." Needless to say,  the petitioner's lawyer wouldn't even consider the idea.

This drama came to a climax at a mid-June Council meeting where the chambers were packed with a large audience. A report was read about the meeting between the two lawyers and the citizens refusal to pay a bond. Immediately following that, a resolution was introduced and passed unanimously: Santa Rosa Ordinance 179 was repealed. The city couldn't be required to enforce  a law that didn't exist. "The council then took up other business," reported the Press Democrat, "and a number of the petitioners present left the council chambers, and gathered in knots of twos and threes to talk over the matter."

The Council did pass a new tannery ordinance two months later, but in the interim there was no regulation of the businesses whatsoever. Heaven knows what the south side of town stunk like on those warm summer evenings.

New ordinance 260 allowed tanneries within city limits as long as they were not "offensive to the senses or prejudicial to the public health or comfort," wording loose enough to be meaningless. But at least the new law explicitly required tanneries to remove waste from the plant within two days and banned dumping in the creek - although the latter was apparently no longer an issue anyway, as at the June 15 Council meeting it was mentioned in passing that the tannery was emptying such "big quantities" into the sewer line that it was becoming obstructed.

Gentle Reader may be now wondering why the Council, and particularly the mayor, treated the Levin Tannery with such kid gloves, ignoring both the law and public will. It would have been no mystery to anyone living here at the time; this was the largest business in town, and the only partner in the corporation besides the Levin brothers was John P. Overton, former mayor and undoubtedly the richest man in town. To the clique of good old boys who owned most of downtown and the Chamber of Commerce insiders who controlled local politics, the smell of rotting hides was the smell of money.

The Levin tannery was destroyed by fire in May, 1910, but was quickly rebuilt and continued operations until 1953. I've been told that it stank up the neighborhood right up till the end. If Santa Rosa had a Latin motto, it would have to be, "Nihil mutat, ergo nulla res mutat:" Nothing changes, so no things change.

*Today, F street is part of Brookwood Avenue, but in the early 20th century F street ended at 2nd, and did not cross the creek. The Levin Tannery was at the current location of 101 Brookwood Ave (stretching on both east and west sides), extending all the way back to Santa Rosa Creek.


Representing 144 citizens Attorney J. Rollo Leppo presented a petition to the City Council calling attention to the existence of an alleged nuisance, namely, the tanning of hides at the tannery of the Levin Tanning Company on Second street, asking for the enforcement of the ordinance regulating such matters. It was also set forth that poisonous matter is being allowed to run into the waters of Santa Rosa creek, the petitioners stating that the same is very offensive. The ordinance was cited as a part of the ordinance.

Attorney Leppo followed up the reading of the petition by an address to the Council, urging that the alleged nuisance complained of existed in a residence neighborhood and not a manufacturing section.

Professor McMeans said the odor from the tannery had been very disagreeable for several years, particularly at night.

August Ketterlin said no better evidence could be offered than to invite the Concilmen to take a walk up that way. He complained of the unpleasant ordor. He said the petition cast no reflection on the shoe factory near the tannery.

John Hood said he and other property owners had offered to buy the site before the tannery opened.

A. P. Macgregory said the odor at times was unbearable, making it impossible to keep the windows open in houses.

Mayor Gray said the matter was one that the whole Council should consider, and should receive attention. Later in the meeting the Mayor and Council decided that they would visit the tannery.

- Press Democrat, January 20, 1909

Strict Regulations to Be Adopted by City Council--New Ordinance to Be Prepared at Once

The long-drawn-out tannery discussion came to an end last night, when, instead of declaring the Levin tannery a nuisance and authorising suit for its removal, the City Council announced its determination of adopting strict regulations for the conduct of all such places operated inside the city limits.

When the matter came up, Councilmen Burris, Bronson, Forgett and Steiner, who visited the big Wagner tannery at Stockton last week, reported on the result of their inspection. They said they had found the institution located on one of the principal residence streets and surrounded by the very best class of homes, and yet there was no complaint upon the part of anybody. The reason was that the tannery is conducted as it should be. No offal or refuse matter of any kind is allowed to accumulate, and hair is carefully washed and dried and the sanitary arrangements are carefully looked after. As a result of its visit the committee was thoroughly convinced that a tannery when properly conducted is not necessarily a nuisance, and that with care and the expenditure of some money all cause for complaint in connection with the Levin tannery could be removed.

Attorney J. R. Leppo, representing the petitioners who asked for the tannery's removal, addressed the Council at length, pointing out the existence of the so-called "deadline" ordinance, and urging that the same be enforced. Attorney Thomas J. Geary represented the Levin people, argued that such drastic methods were entirely unnecessary and pledged the institution under discussion to a strict compliance with whatever regulations might be adopted. John P. Overton, one of the stockholders and directors, also gave the council his assurance that this would be done, and at once Mayor Gray stated that while the people living in that part of town are entitled to be protected, he was of the opinion that the plan suggested would give them full relief, and such being the case the abatement of the nuisance rather than forcing the tannery to move was the proper course to pursue.

When Mayor Gray  had taken his seat, Attorney Leppo asked point-blank whether or not the present ordinance was going to be enforced.

"No," said the Mayor.

It is understood that an ordinance prescribing the manner in which tanneries are to be conducted is to be prepared at once, and that it will be a strict one. It will be based largely upon the insight on the subject gained by the recent Stockton trip. "The Levins will have to run their place properly, and that is all there is to it," said Mayor James H.  Gray last night after the meeting. "We do not want to see them injured in a business way or unjustly harassed, but the people living up in that part of town are entitled to protection, and we propose to see that they get it."

- Press Democrat, March 17, 1909

Action Is Taken at the Meeting Last Night

The City Council last night, by unanimous vote, repealed the ordinance in existence for a number of years prescribing the limits in which tanneries could be operated in Santa Rosa. It immediately afterwards passed a resolution calling for the preparatings by the Ordinance Committee of a  new ordinance governing and regulating the conducting of all tanneries, etc., in Santa Rosa. The action taken followed the long drawn out controversy of the Levin tannery.

The rumor that the tannery matter would again be up for consideration attracted a large audience to the council chambers. At a previous meeting the matter had been placed in the hands of the City Attorney, representing the city, for a conference with Attorney J. Rollo  Leppo, representing the petitioners for the removal of the tannery, as to the adoption of a course of procedure, following the vote to estop any further postponement of action on the demanded enforcement of the ordinance.

Mayor Gray called upon City Attorney Allison B. Ware for a report as to the conference held between himself and Mr. Leppo. Mr. Ware stated that he and Mr. Leppo had met and talked over the matter at some length. This was in view of the contemplated enforcement of the ordinance as has already been mentioned. Two propositions were discussed, namely, he said, one of which was for the petitioners to put up a bond of $50,000 to indemnify the city against all damages and handle their own case in the courts through their attorneys, Messr. Cowan and Leppo, for the city to assume all liabilites, require no bond from the petitioners and handle the case entirely through the City Attorney withoug additional legal assistance. Attorney Leppo had stated, he said, that the petitioners would not put up a bond indemnifying the city from all loss or suits and would prefer to have the city enforce the ordinance and take entire charge of and prosecute the alleged violation of the ordinance.

Attorney Leppo, who was present at the meeting, as were also Attorney T. J. Geary and Attorney J. P. Berry, representing the tannery interests, suggested at a previous meeting that the petitioners would be willing to put up a bond to pay "recoverable costs," such as fees of court reporter and court fees.

Chairman Johnston of the Ordinance [illegible microfilm] handed Clerk Clawson a resolution which he said he desired to offer. Clerk Clawson read the document, which was a resolution repealing the tannery limit ordinance, Councilman Burris moved and Councilman Steiner seconded the adoption of the resolution. Each councilman responded with an "aye," when his name was called.

Before recording his vote Councilman Fred Forgett stated that he wished to make a little explanation before voting. He said at the previous meeting he voted for no further delay in the enforcing of the ordinance with the understanding as he supposed that the petitioners would give the bond to indemnify the city from all costs or damages that might result. Mr. Leppo said that was not the understanding.

The rule was then suspended and the resolution repealing the ordinance was passed. Then Councilman Barham moved and Councilman Steiner seconded the motion that the Ordinance Committee proceed to draft a new ordinance regulating and governing the conducting of tanneries and factories in the city of Santa Rosa.

The council then took up other business and a number of the petitioners present left the council chambers, and gathered in knots of twos and threes to talk over the matter.

- Press Democrat, June 16, 1909

Levin Tanning Company Must Appear in Superior Court

The Levin Tanning Company, a corporation, was held for trail before the Superior Court Monday by Justice Atchinson on a charge of polluting the waters of Santa Rosa creek. This is the second case against the defendants on a similar charge.

The complaint was made by Deputy Game Commissioner J. C. Ingalls and it charges the defendants with dumping the tannery vats into the creek, despite warnings for a couple of years.

Dr. A. J. Cox of the Stanford University faculty was the principal witness, he having made a number of tests of the water of the creek and experiments and claimed that it would kill fish life. The lime water from the vats killed fish in 14 minutes, while that diluted to four per cent killed them in less than three hours.

- Press Democrat, March 13, 1906

Levin Brothers to Inaugurate New Plan at Their Tannery

Levin Bros., proprietors of the Levin Tanning company, will soon inaugurate a new feature in connection with their business. They are planning to secure a place out of town for the handling of the hair and scrapings that come from the hides in process of manufacture, and after properly drying and curing, it will ship the hair east. There is a good demand for hair of this knd, which is used in the manufacture of various articles, and also in the building trades.

It is the scrapings above referred to which the hair is attached, that cause the disagreeable odor noticeable in the vicinity of so many tanneries. When dumped out and allowed to remain in the vicinity a stench arises, particularly in warm weather. It is possible that the hair output of the other local tanneries will also be purchased by Levin Bros. and carried away daily into the hills and handled with their own. For some time the inauguration of this new feature of their business has been in contemplation by Levin Bros., but they claim that heretofore the amount of hair turned out has not justified the expense of fixing up to properly handle it. The scrapings will be removed daily, and men will be kept constantly employed at the curing grounds to handle it. Levin Bros. say there will be no cause for complaint over any odors in the vicinity of their big establishment here when they inaugurate the new arrangement, and if they succeed in arranging for the purchase of the hair scrapings of the other local tanneries the same thing may be said of them also.

- Press Democrat, March 29, 1906

The 1906 Santa Rosa Earthquake brought out the best in our own townspeople, but it also attracted some nasty scoundrels.

A common theme in the first-hand accounts of the quake was the unflinching heroism of Santa Rosans as they struggled to rescue victims while simultaneously preventing the town from burning away. Press Democrat city editor Herbert Slater summarized that day well: "No one hesitated. With senses beclouded with the horror of the situation, men realized there was no time for delay. Delay meant death; death from the smothering dust; death from the cruel weight of beams, planks and stone; and worse than all, death from the cruel flames which were already bursting forth from piles of debris from fallen and partially fallen buildings."

Less mentioned were the crime incidents. In the days following, when many families were camping on their lawns in fear of aftershocks, some helpful strangers volunteered to lend a hand in rescuing precious items from their homes; the valuables were saved from imminent danger, although never seen again. There was a clerk who cashed in his employer's insurance policy and disappeared with the money. And who can forget the charming "Dr. C. C. Crandall," who posed as a doctor at the hospital in order to swipe stuff from the nurses and injured.

Not a criminal that day, but the creme de la cad had to be James Byrd, a pressman for the Press Democrat. The day before the earthquake, he asked his colleague Milo Fish to take his shift so that he could go to Oakland.  When the disaster struck, Fish was running through the outside door just as the brick wall collapsed. He was pulled from the rubble alive but soon died at home, surrounded by his wife and six children. (To its credit, the PD trained his widow to be a linotype operator and she supported her family in the following years by working part time for the newspaper.)

Even though another man died in Byrd's place and he was uninjured, he had the remarkable gall to demand a share of the Typographical Union's disaster relief fund. The Press Democrat informed the union that his claim was bogus. "This was refused him and he created some disturbance," the San Francisco Call reported, going on to remark that "His behavior during his residence here was generally considered bad." The PD also told the union that he had worked at the newspaper under the assumed name of Boyd. He gave no reason for using an alias, although it came out later that apparently he had abandoned a wife and two children in another state.

Denied his wrongful share of the earthquake money (and probably booted from the union), Byrd took a job as a clerk in a Memphis shoe store. There he killed a co-worker in 1907 after an argument about a ball game wager. He later claimed he only conked the man with a shoe stretcher after he was attacked with a knife.

Now calling himself James W. Robinson, he drifted around the country for a couple of years before settling in Colorado, where he married again (his second wife, Mrs. "Boyd," died in Santa Rosa before the earthquake). While honeymooning in Denver, he had the bad luck of being recognized by someone from Memphis. He was arrested and confessed his crime, and over the next few days the tale of his sordid odyssey spilled out in newspapers across the country.

Thus ends the narrative of James Byrd/Boyd/Robinson, murderer and scoundrel supreme. Thus start the unanswerable questions.

 All we know is what emerged from a widely reprinted wire service story that was cobbled together from various sources the day after his confession. A Denver paper reported the arrest; the Press Democrat contributed the bad-character anecdote; Memphis newspapers filled in the backstory of the murder and alleged bigamy.

But there the story hits a brick wall. We don't know what happened when he was brought before a court of law, whether he was sentenced to many years in jail or a very few.  Tennessee prison records have not been computerized, and apparently not even microfilmed. All that we can say for certain is that he wasn't executed for the crime (at least, not under any of the names mentioned). He might have even been acquitted by a jury on a self-defense plea. Those answers, however, are buried in century-old court records, probably never to see the light of a digitizing scanner.

That's the moral of this fable; it demonstrates that the oceans of information available via the Internet are vast but not deep. There are now somewhere around eight million newspaper pages scanned and available from either the Library of Congress or commercial services - but there is not a single digitized  newspaper which tells us the outcome of Mr. Byrd's fate. The Tennessee State Library has large holdings of newspapers on microfilm but does not loan material out of state, and its own digitization project has focused narrowly on the Civil War era. Chances are slim to none that the outcome of this story will be told unless someone wants to waltz down to Tennessee.

This is also a cautionary warning for those who subscribe to Internet database services with grand hopes of sherlocking ancestral trails. Mr. Byrd/Boyd/Robinson (and possibly Anderson, as he was named in the 1909 PD article) can't be found in any U.S. census. Or at least, not pinned with any confidence; James Byrd  -  if that's who he actually was - was a rather common name for a boy born presumably in the 1880s.

And was James Question-Mark a single person - or two, or three? All we're left with is what we see by the papers, however (in)accurate that may be. Certainly any reasonably competent defense lawyer could have easily picked apart the other damning evidence that was presented to the public. The wire service story reported only that "it is not improbable" that the man being held for killing a shoe clerk was the same J. L. Byrd who ran out on his wife years earlier. The Press Democrat cautiously stated that "it is believed"  that the man known here as Boyd was the same guy. It's quite possible that the man being held for that shoe clerk's death had nothing to do with the greedy chowderhead who tried to rip off the union in Santa Rosa, or the long-missing wayward husband and father.

Whether or not the  Santa Rosa version of J. L. Byrd was the same person, seeking undeserved relief money in that manner makes him one of the 1906 earthquake's few true villains. One wonders why the story didn't come out until three years later, and what else was kept quiet at the time.

(UPDATE: In a surprising twist, Boyd paid a friendly visit to the Press Democrat offices in 1911, which implies he had no connection to the Memphis crime and his use of a false name was probably more innocent than the PD implied. Read update here.)

Arrest of J. L. Byrd at Denver Who Confesses to Crime, Recalls How a Man With the Same Name Escaped Death Here in Great Disaster

Denver, July 23.--James Anderson, who was arrested here yesterday on the suspicion of being J. L. Byrd, wanted in Memphis, Tenn., for the murder of Joseph Black, a shoe dealer of that city, for whom Byrd formerly worked, this morning confessed to the police that he was the murderer. Byrd was married two weeks ago at Colorado Springs, and with his bride was spending his honeymoon in Denver. Anderson formerly worked in San Francisco.

(It is believed Byrd was an employee of the Press Democrat as night pressman up to the time of the fire, under the name of Boyd. The night of the disaster he had secured Milo S. Fish to work for him in running off the paper so he could take his little son to Oakland and send him to his grandparents in Texas, his wife having died a few weeks previously in this city. Mr. Fish was crushed to death under the falling walls of the building, while Byrd was safe in Oakland. Later Byrd returned here, secured his Typographical Union travelling card and went elsewhere. When he heard that funds had been sent here for the members of the union, he wrote back and demanded his share, but was refused any part in the fund, as he was not a sufferer by the disaster, had gone elsewhere and was working at regular wages. Byrd never gave any reason why he went under an assumed name here to those who knew the fact, but requested that it not be made known, and it never was until after he left town, when the fact was given to the union officers.--Ed.)

- Press Democrat, July 24, 1909

Former Indiana Girl Makes Husband Admit Murder.
J. L. Byrd, Arrested in Denver Soon After Wedding, Tells of Killing Fellow Clerk in Memphis Store.

Denver, Col., July 24.--James W. Robinson, who was arrested here Thursday on suspicion of being J. L. Byrd, wanted in Memphis, Tenn., for the murder of Joseph Black, a shoe dealer of that city, yesterday confessed that he was the murderer.

Byrd was married two weeks ago at Colorado Springs and with his bride was enjoying his honeymoon at Denver. The prisoner's wife, Elsie Syms Robinson, came to Denver with her parents from Terre Haute, Ind.

Bride Tells Him to Speak
Robinson's confession followed a talk with Chief of Police Armstrong in the latter's office. Robinson's bride of two weeks, who was present, finally interrupted.

"Jimmie, if you are the man, tell them," she said. "It will make no difference to me, because I will stick by you no matter what the circumstances."

There was silence for a moment. Then Robinson, white and shaking, owned up.

"Chief," he said, "I am the man you want. I killed Black because I thought my life was in danger. We engaged in an argument over a baseball bet and he started toward me with an open knife in his hand.

"I seized the only weapon at hand, a shoe stretcher, and struck him over the head with it. I did not mean to kill him. I didn't tell you before on account of my wife."

Byrd added that Black previously had insulted him several times.

Wishes He Hadn't Fled.
"For two years I have been wishing that I'd never left home," he said, "and now that I've been caught and told my story, I am happy and will go back there and clear up everything and commence to live right."

Robinson said that in a panic of fear after his fatal encounter with Black he went to Texas, stayed there a few days, then came to Colorado later going to San Francisco and Seattle and returning to Colorado where he secured employment.

Charge Against Prisoner.
Memphis, Tenn., July 24.--J. L. Byrd, who is under arrest at Denver, Col., is wanted here for the murder of Joseph Black, who was killed July 8, 1907, at No. 4 North Main street, where both Black and Byrd were employed as shoe clerks. It is alleged that Byrd struck Black in the head with a blunt instrument following an altercation over a trivial matter. He escaped immediately after the fight and successfully evaded police until recognized in Denver by E. A. Collins of this city.

Should a dispatch from Covington, Tenn., prove correct, it is not improbable that Byrd is answerable the charge of bigamy. According to the Covington dispatch the man's wife and two children reside with her father near Covington, and so far as can be ascertained, neither party has obtained a divorce.

- Logansport [Indiana] Semi-Weekly Reporter, July 27, 1909

 About a century ago, the waters of Santa Rosa Creek were where great promises - and often, fish - went to die. Some examples:

* A water park was designed in early 1906 that would have created a centerpiece for the town. Instead of building that, a few months later Santa Rosa was dumping tons of earthquake debris into the creek for new approaches to the E street bridge.

* The candidate for mayor in 1908 made a voting day promise to clean up the creek area and create a park, then a year later cast the deciding vote allowing the tannery to continue polluting the water in violation of city law.

* In 1909 the Fish and Game Commissioner seeded the creek with 40,000 trout fingerlings near the headwaters (probably somewhere around the base of Hood Mountain) - even though just a couple of years before, he had found that trout and other fish quickly died in the "filthy" waters downstream from the power plant near Main street.

(RIGHT: Postcard c. 1910)

The pendulum swing between Great Expectations and Awful Reality continued in 1909 with an editorial in the Republican newspaper, hopeful that some sort of creek beautification project would start during their lifetimes. Then a few weeks later, three men were caught in the act of throwing trash on the creek bank - and you can be certain that for each of the men brought before the judge, there were dozens, probably scores, of other illegal dumpers who escaped the policeman's eye.

The most curious incident involved an employee who told the court that he had been ordered to dump the garbage at the creek. His boss readily admitted this was true, then protested when fined $5 by the court. According to the paper, he "insisted that the fine was unjust, as there was no other place to make deposit of the garbage." Um, well.


Warrants of arrest were sworn out on Friday morning by Officer John Boyes for two expressmen, both charged with dumping garbage on the banks of Santa Rosa Creek. Both later appeared before City Recorder Bagley and pleading guilty, were fined five dollars each.

- Santa Rosa Republican, September 4, 1909


Joseph Ferari was given his hearing before Police Judge Bagley Thursday afternoon on the charge of dumping garbage on the banks of Santa Rosa Creek. He confessed to dumping the same, but asserted that he had done it upon the request of the owner of the property, Joseph Mallerari, and with the permission of the street commissioner. Mr. Mallerari corroborated the other's story, and said that he wanted the stuff dumped there and that he wanted to suffer the penalty, as Ferari was his servant and he had ordered him to bring the garbage there. Ferari was fined five dollars. Mallerari, however, insisted that the fine was unjust, as there was no other place to make deposit of the garbage.

- Santa Rosa Republican, October 1, 1909

Judge Seawell and Deputy A. F. Lea Re-stock Stream With Fish Secured from Hatchery

Superior Judge Emmet Seawell and Deputy State Fish Commissioner A. F. Lea on Tuesday placed 40,000 small trout in the water of Santa Rosa creek.

The fish were secured by Judge Seawell to stock the creek from Colonel La Motte of the Northwestern Railroad Company's hatchery near Ukiah. They arrived here in big cans. The judge and commissioner hauled the fish in an express wagon to the headwaters of the creek and from there distributed them along the stream. It was strenuous exercise for the jurist, and on Wednesday he felt the effects of the lifting of the heavy cans and the scrambling down the creek bank.

Judge Seawell, Mr. Lea and Colonel La Motte deserve the hearty thanks of the anglers who hope to enjoy much good fishing in the seasons to come as the result of the re-stocking of the stream.

-- Press Democrat, July 8, 1909

On a number of occasions this paper has urged the beautification of the bed of Santa Rosa creek. We have urged that this work begin between Main and E streets, and that in time it continue entirely across the city from east to west. We may not live to witness the completion of this work, but we hope to live long enough to witness its beginning, to say the least. If economically managed the proposition would not be very expensive and the returns from the same would be highly gratifying.

Santa Rosa is not the only California city thinking of converting an unsightly river bed into a beautiful park and a number of beautiful lakes. The same matter is now under consideration in other places. Los Angeles has an unused river bed. It is an unsightly washout that decreases the value of all neighboring property. The people there have started discussion of an appropriation of a million dollars for the improvement of this stream, and when the people of the southern city begins talking about what should be done in any matter. It is likely to be done without particular delay.

If a few cement dams were put across Santa Rosa creek within out city limits and the banks on either side of the creek properly improved and protected, what a change this would soon make in things. The expense of this work would be trifling in comparison with its value. It is to be hoped that talk will result in action in this matter.

- Santa Rosa Republican editorial, August 17, 1909

What was the largest home built in Santa Rosa? It wasn't Mableton, the McDonald mansion; the elephant in our living room was the Riley house at 426 Mendocino Avenue, with its stately house and gardens that filled most of the block between Fifth Street and (what's now) Seventh Street.* At about 16,000 square feet, it was so big that when it was remodeled into a hotel there were thirty guest rooms.

 (TOP: The Mendocino Ave. entrance walkway to the Lebanon Hotel, c. 1908 
 MIDDLE: Tinted postcard, c. 1909 
 BELOW: The view from Riley street, c. 1935, when it was I.O.O.F. Lodge no. 53. Photo courtesy Sonoma County Library) 

 The size of the house was difficult to judge from the street because the building was secluded by mature trees, as footpaths wound around bushes and flower beds. A postcard was sold of the Weeping Lebanon Cedar, and photos from the early Twentieth Century of blooming cherry trees and roses can still be found. Whomever gardened these grounds had the greenest of thumbs (having a 600 sq. ft. greenhouse at the back of the property didn't hurt, either).

It's been guesstimated that the house was built in the 1870s, based upon its Second Empire style with mansard roof and elaborate dormer windows. But it's also possible that this was an exterior remodel of an older and much simpler house. The 1876 Bird's eye view of Santa Rosa - which is pretty reliable in showing approximate sizes and shapes of buildings - has a two-story house with about the same footprint in that location. The late 1870s was also an era when there was a fad for slapping a modern Victorian facade over simple, classic designs, and adding a mansard roof was a popular way to simultaneously update the look and gain another story. Many such examples can be found in the contemporary how-to book, "Old Homes Made New," which has before-and-after drawings - although most of the "improved" homes look like they were designed for the Munsters.

(2016 UPDATE: Katherine Rinehart of the Sonoma County Library History and Genealogy Library discovered it was built by carpenter-architect Cyrus H. Bumpus in 1872. Cyrus and his wife, Dorcas, lived there until it was sold to the Rileys.)

 We also don't know who first owned the house (someone with title search skills could probably answer that), but the 1880 census shows an extended family of eight living there with two servants. At home were Mr. and Mrs. Riley and their two children as well as Mrs. Riley's parents and their two other children. This was probably a confusing family to meet for the first time; Mr. Riley was older than his mother-in-law by about three years, and Mrs. Riley was young enough to be his daughter by a quarter century.

The in-laws were Alonzo and America Thomas, he being a lawyer who moved to Santa Rosa during the Civil War. Alonzo wasn't in the house very long before he died in late 1880 after a  prolonged illness. America Lillard Thomas lived until she was 77 and was one of the sad footnotes to the 1906 earthquake. She died at her home about ten weeks after the disaster, from "general disability following general neurosis caused by shock."

Mr. Riley was Amos W. Riley, a businessman of great success. He and his partner founded a chain of mercantile stores from Sonoma to Humboldt counties, then concentrated on raising livestock with large ranches in Nevada and Oregon. Amos Riley died in 1908 at age 83 and like everyone else mentioned here, is buried at the Rural Cemetery.

After the earthquake and the death of mother-in-law America, Amos moved in with his daughter, a block away at 565 Mendocino Av (currently a parking lot), and the Riley family leased their old home to developers who remodeled it into the Hotel Lebanon. The public had its first chance to get an eyeful of the gardens - which, I suspect, had been created and always under the care of the late America Thomas - and it's easy to imagine that the beautiful, fragrant hideaways immediately became a favorite haven of young people in love.

Then came 1909, when we find Ernest Finley, editor of the Press Democrat and president of the Chamber of Commerce, doing backflips of joy over the proposal that the old house could become the town's city hall and the beautiful grounds be declared Santa Rosa's first public park.

In the first decade of the Twentieth Century, Santa Rosa was a place where grand ambitions rose and just as quickly died, mostly because of a lack of political will to raise money to pay for public improvements. New post-quake federal and county buildings (the post office and courthouse) were in the finishing stages in 1909, but there was no city building even planned. An architect-designed city hall and firehouse was abandoned because the local banks didn't want to loan money to the city. Plans for a city water park were thrown out after the quake, and the current mayor didn't even try to make good on election promises to transform the tenderloin district into a park that families could enjoy.

The Press Democrat backed the idea of buying the Riley property enthusiastically, given that it would provide an instant solution to both park and city hall needs. Acknowledging that a 30-room joint complete with dining hall might be a trifle too roomy for the administrators of a small farm town, the PD mused that the mansion could be later torn down or moved and a smaller office built on the corner of the property. The paper was so gung-ho on the concept that it did something unusual: It reprinted a condensed version of a story that had appeared the previous week, this time accompanied by the photo at top that filled a third of the page.

And predictably, the grand ambition fizzled. No bond measure was placed before the voters.

After its time as a family home and hotel/restaurant, a third act awaited the grand old place. The Odd Fellows Lodge no. 53 bought the building in 1911 and remained there until 1955, when its new building was dedicated on Pacific Avenue. The Lodge has a few exterior photographs from its tenure, but alas, no interior pictures are known to exist.

As the Riley Mansion began in mystery, so it ended; the year of its demolition is not known. Farewell, majestic old manse; too bad we didn't at least have the decency to save the trees, which can live for more than a thousand years.

* The 1967 Seventh Street Realignment Project merged the old 7th street (west of Mendocino Av.) with Johnson St. (east of Mendocino Avenue). A couple of odd twists and turns were added where no road had existed previously to make everything connect. properly, and the Johnson name was abandoned.

Citizens Discussing an Interesting Project Now

The acquisition by Santa Rosa of the beautiful grounds about the Hotel Lebanon on Mendocino avenue for a public park. together with the big building, which could be used as a City Hall, has been a subject of discussion on the part of a number of citizens, particularly since it was learned that the property could be purchased for the same figure as that contemplated in the bond issue for the erection of a municipal building, $40,000.

For a long time the acquiring of a park for the City of Roses has been the fond dream of the Woman's Improvement Club and advocated by scores of the men of the city as well. Already the suggestion made for the purchase by the city of the Hotel Lebanon property, owned by the estate of the late A. W. Riley, for the purposes mentioned, has enthusiastic supporters, and now that the Press Democrat gives it publicity it is expected that the plan will be discussed freely.

For years the Riley property, with the spacious residence and picturesque surroundings, has been one of the show places of Santa Rosa, and in times past it has often been coveted for park purposes. In the grounds are trees and shrubs gathered from many climes, and when the family vacated the place and after the big disaster it became the "Hotel Lebanon," it was so named from the beautiful Cedar of Lebanon which was brought from the Holy Land many years ago and planted in front of the mansion where it has grown and developed ever since.

Recently several thousand dollars was spent on the building prior to its reopening and for some time to come it could be used for municipal purposes, there being many spacious rooms available for meeting places and offices. Later on, it is suggested, the building could be sold, and a city hall built, either back against the Native Sons' building, or else in the center of the park.

Another important consideration in the connection with the purchase of the Riley place for a public park is that it is centrally and ideally located and the park is already there--the grounds are laid out and the trees, shrubs, and flowers are already growing luxuriantly.

- Press Democrat, July 23, 1909


The hotel Lebanon will close its doors at the end of July, and its manager, B. C. Cosgrove, will retire temporarily from business. This is being done on account of the state of his health. All the furniture and fixtures are for sale.

The Lebanon was built by the late A. W. Riley and occupied by him and his family for many years as a private residence. After the fire of 1906 it was made a hotel and for a considerable time it was the only hostelry in Santa Rosa and had a big run. When Mr. Cosgrove too charge he had it completely renovated and made many changes in its arrangement.

The hotel is situatied almost in the business section of the city and the garden and grounds surrounding it are hardly equaled in this section. It has been equipped more for a tourist than a commercial hotel.

- Santa Rosa Republican, July 15, 1909

Many Want to See the Plan Carried Out

The publicity given the project to buy the Hotel Lebanon and grounds for a public park in the Press Democrat on Thursday morning excited much interest and the matter was much discussed pro and con during the day. It was expected that the suggestion would give rise to considerable talk. To many people it was a hearing of the matter for the first time; others had hoped that just such a plan as put forward would some day become a realization.

Citizens Interviewed

Thursday a Press Democrat representative interviewed a number of well know citizens on the subject and found that a majority looked with favor on the scheme. Others desired a little more time for consideration. Still others favored the acquisition of the beautiful grounds as a park but opposed the use of the building as a city hall. In regard to the latter idea it was not the intention of the citizens who first suggested the purchase of the property by the city that the building should be a permanent City Hall, the plan being that it could be used temporarily.

Would Move Building

"By all means I am in favor of the city purchasing the Hotel Lebanon property for a public park; lets have it all park, however, and sell the building and move it away," was the reply of one citizen asked for an expression.

"It is a splendid idea," said another. "I think that the bonds would be more likely to carry for the purchase of the Riley property for a park than for the erection of a city hall on the old lot," he added.

"I read about the plan this morning, but I must have a little more time to look into the matter. O, yes, of course Santa Rosa wants a park, we all admit that."

There are a few of the replies to queries put by the interviewer to men of affairs in Santa Rosa.

Ladies Are Interviewed

A number of women were also seen. They are all in favor of a park and for several years the securing of a park has been the fond hope of the Woman's Improvement Club. There is no doubt that the entire club membership will endorse the suggested acquisition of the Riley property.

Then, of course, among the number discussing the matter Thursday were men who did not see the wisdom of taking a hasty step in the matter. Then there were those, you could count them on your fingers, happily, who raised their voice in protest against the idea of a park or city hall at all, men who are nearly always in the front rank of the "knockers" and to whom a city's progress means naught.

But the concensus [sic] of opinion gained Thursday is heartily in favor of the public park, particularly such an ideal place as can now be secured in the purchase of the Riley property. Many people passing along Mendocino avenue Thursday stopped to look and admire and talk about the delights of the trees and shrubs, the lawns and walks. Others brought visitors to the place to show them. It was a day of additional admiration for the beautiful place on Mendocino avenue which public spirited citizens suggest should be acquired by Santa Rosa as a public park and city hall.

Director Alfred Trembley of the Santa Rosa Chamber of Commerce was very enthusiastic over the project. "I consider it a fine thing and it would undoubtedly make a beautiful park. Later on if the city desired, it could build a city hall adjoining the Native Sons building, or else in the center of the park."

Professor A. C. McMeans said: "I like the idea of purchasing the Riley place for a park. I was very much in doubt if I would vote bonds for a city hall on the other site, but I would vote for this project."

- Press Democrat, July 23, 1909

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