In March 1963, the first annual "Congress for Community Progress" was held at the Flamingo Hotel. Formed by the Santa Rosa Chamber of Commerce, its avowed mission was to "unify community thought and action" around ways to improve the city, according to general chairman Judge Hilliard Comstock, while avoiding "rehashing mistakes of the past."

The 268 participants - drawn from downtown business interests, social clubs, churches, unions and the City Hall bureaucracy - were split into seven panels. Some of their recommendations had little or no chance: An arts festival intended to draw visitors by the hundreds of thousands, a volunteer-run "central service club" for all elderly and handicapped residents, donations of large plots of land for new parks and baseball fields, and a "United Crusade" to collect donations for all local charities.

In contrast, the streets and traffic panel did not indulge in daydreams. They pushed to lobby for a bill in the state legislature for higher gas and road taxes, plus an upcoming municipal bond vote that would fund over $1 million in streetwork. "There's nothing wrong with Sonoma County and Santa Rosa's road, street and parking problems that money won't cure," promised Press Democrat editor Art Volkerts.

Much has been written here about Santa Rosa's urban renewal misadventures during the 1960s and 1970s, which culminated with the city bulldozing a third of downtown so a private developer could build the mall. Should you be unfamiliar with that sad story, here’s a short recap or Gentle Reader can plunge into the extensive series about it all, “YESTERDAY IS JUST AROUND THE CORNER.”

But before we began tearing those buildings down, there was another civic program that set the stage for Santa Rosa destroying its Shadow of a Doubt character in the name of progress. That was the city's embrace of a street improvement plan to supersize many of our streets, both commercial and residential. Because of it, Santa Rosa gradually turned from “The City Designed for Living” into "The City Designed for Cars."

The rest of this article can be read at the SantaRosaHistory.com website. Because of recurring problems with the Blogger platform, I am no longer wasting my time formatting and posting complete articles here. I will continue to create stubs for the sake of continuity, but will be publishing full articles only at SantaRosaHistory.com. - Jeff Elliott

Let's play a game: Try to name a city more self-destructive than Santa Rosa.

We split the town in half (twice!) and hid the downtown creek from sight, although it was the natural feature beloved by all. We encouraged demolishing historic neighborhoods, plowing ahead with urban renewal even after that kind of planning was widely discredited. And if you wanna see someone's blood actually boil, take an older person down to Courthouse Square and ask them to point out the courthouse.

There's lots more. We needlessly widened many commercial and residential streets to better accomodate the Car Culture of the 1960s (this is the topic of the following article). One of those street projects was so outrageous it demands special attention because it involved the demolition of Luther Burbank's home. That happened just a few days before the annual Rose Festival - technically the Luther Burbank Rose Festival, of course - and where that year's theme was "Our American Heritage." Oh, the irony. Ironies.

The history of Burbank's lost house was told here earlier, so there's no need to rehash all the details. But briefly, it was built to his specifications in 1906 and remained his home until he died there twenty years later. The ground floor was almost entirely used as his office and on its front steps he was photographed with Thomas Edison, Henry Ford and other luminaries. Once the home was built, he referred to the place we now call Luther Burbank Home & Gardens as the “Old Homestead,” or the “Experimental Farm.”

The seeds for its destruction were planted in 1960 when a New Jersey consulting firm hired by the city proposed connecting Sonoma Ave. to Ellis St. As with so many of Santa Rosa's urban renewal plans, there was no good reason given why this should be done.

Their design - which can be seen in a previous article - would have diverted Metanzas Creek into Santa Rosa Creek around E Street. The city could then reclaim the filled in lower part of Metanzas to create a new park or maybe "a civic center perhaps to include a new City Hall, Chamber of Commerce building, and state offices." Although we'll see there was a later squabble over the route of the Sonoma/Ellis connection, it was always going to cut through the property with Burbank's home.

The rest of this article can be read at the SantaRosaHistory.com website. Because of recurring problems with the Blogger platform, I am no longer wasting my time formatting and posting complete articles here. I will continue to create stubs for the sake of continuity, but will be publishing full articles only at SantaRosaHistory.com. - Jeff Elliott

It's early 1861 and the nation is falling apart. Seven states have seceded from the Union and their troops are seizing local military forts. The New Orleans Mint and Customhouse are commandeered along with $350,000 (equivalent to $18M today). There are widespread worries an attack on Washington D.C. is imminent - yet hope abounds an outright war can still be avoided.

Most Americans could stay reasonably abreast of the crisis without too much effort. There were an estimated 3,000 newspapers and trains, stagecoaches and the post office carried those papers far and wide. News also could also spread quickly via telegrams and letters. It was a wondrously efficient network - at least, as long as you lived east of the Mississippi River.

In the critical months leading up to the Civil War there was no transcontinental railroad or telegraph. Not even a tiny wisp of news from the East Coast could reach California or Oregon in less than three weeks, which was how long it took mail or a messenger to get here via stagecoach from Missouri. And that was only under ideal conditions with the best luck; a lot might go wrong during a 2,000 mile bumpy trip across deserts and mountains on rough trails.

Thus it came to pass a freight company that supplied western military forts started the Pony Express in April 1860, with the promise that a relay of fast horsemen could deliver mail to California in 7-10 days. Only rarely, under ideal weather conditions and with a great deal of luck, did it meet such a tight schedule.

By coincidence, the Pony Express launched just as Sonoma County newspapers were starting to gain wider Bay Area circulation. During the mid-1850s there were two lackluster rural weeklies, the Sonoma County Journal in Petaluma and the Sonoma Democrat in Santa Rosa. In April 1860 the Democrat was bought by Thomas L. Thompson and in May Samuel Cassiday and a partner took over the nascent Petaluma Argus, which was only a few months old and thus far had been published in fits and starts. (MORE on the genealogy of these early newspapers)

There weren't many places in the West during 1860 that could support three papers, but Sonoma County then had the most people on the coast after San Francisco. Also, the papers offered more than the usual market reports and items on local farmers drunkenly falling off barn roofs. Thompson's Democrat was rabidly pro secession, pro slavery and anti Lincoln. Cassiday was a "Black Republican" (meaning an abolitionist) and once the war started the Argus offered extensive coverage of Union troop movements along with battlefield reports. The Journal took a moderate stance and advocated for peace until the war began, then often wrote about it with a detached tone as if it were a conflict between two nations overseas.

The Pony Express updates were like catnip to their readers. Columns headlined "EASTERN NEWS - BY PONY EXPRESS" (or similar) were usually at the top of the front pages and it's easy to understand the appeal; the news in those columns has an exciting immediacy even though the events happened weeks earlier. It reminds me of what it was like following breaking news on Twitter during its heyday: A frothy mixture of solid facts, opinionated guesswork and crazy bullshit.

The rest of this article can be read at the SantaRosaHistory.com website. Because of recurring problems with the Blogger platform, I am no longer wasting my time formatting and posting complete articles here. I will continue to create stubs for the sake of continuity, but will be publishing full articles only at SantaRosaHistory.com. - Jeff Elliott

Newer Posts Older Posts Home