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Petaluma's historic streets


I have a sneaky hunch that our local nonprofits sold about as many fireworks as ever, even with one day less to purvey the fizzlers. Time will tell.

Today, as we are celebrating our heritage, seems a good time to consider some of Petaluma's own history. One area of interest is this: Where did our streets get their names?

The subject interested me a few weeks back when a friend asked me who or what Gilrix Street was named for. Frankly, I don't have a clue. My guess is that it was named for a friend or relative of the developer, which was Wes Bailey of Walnut Creek. In later years, the company became known as McBail. But that is only a guess. Anyone out there have a clue? Let me know.

In recent years, some of our streets were named for city officials, perhaps in hopes of expediting approval of the subdivision application. For example, we have a Serpilio street near North McDowell. At the time local banker Mike Serpilio sat on the Planning Commission. There is a Putnam Way near La Tercera school, in honor of former Mayor Helen Putnam, named when she was in office.

The origin of some of our older downtown streets is known, but others' probably never will be. Nobody has ever been able to guess why one of our first streets, Kentucky, was so named. But, we do know that the man in charge of laying out the first streets downtown named Keller Street after himself.

Petaluma Boulevard got its name when local officials, bursting with a need for the city to adapt a patina of sophistication, discarded the name of Main Street and opted for the fancier title. In recent decades history devotees have lobbied on many occasions to get the name changed back to Main Street, but not much luck there.

One of my favorite stories is the source of the name for Payran Street. A gent named Stephen Payran arrived in San Francisco shortly after the Gold Rush began, and became a leader in the Committee of Vigilance, a group of San Franciscans who became vigilantes, operating in opposition to the local government, and charging themselves with imposing law and order. This first group was credited with no less than eight hangings.

It is interesting to note that most of those hanged, and a great many of those expelled from the region, were from Australia.

In any case, the group disbanded after a few months, and reformed from time to time when incompetent law enforcement, or outright corruption, stirred up the citizenry.

The group reemerged finally in 1856, and this time, as they say, crossed the line. Among other excesses, they are said to have seized three shipments of arms intended for the state militia, and tried in absentia the Chief Justice of the California Supreme Court. This time the citizenry rose against the vigilantes, and many of them were, shall we say, excused from San Francisco.

Stephen Payran was in that group, and he selected as his new home the 4-year-old city in the North Bay, Petaluma. Though it has been suggested that Payran became active in vigilante activities here, I have been unable to find in the written records any support for this idea. It is known that Payran got involved in politics here, and served in a couple of county offices, including coroner. And, like a number of other politicians, got a street named for him.

One other street name story I like is what today is known as Prospect Street. In the early days, it was called Potato Street, supposedly because the wagons hauling potatoes from the farms around Sebastopol came down this street on their way to the river. There the spuds were loaded onto barges for shipment to San Francisco. Potato Street, like Main Street, wasn't hoity-toity enough for the civic minded, and it was gussied up as well.

Got any other info about other local street or place names? My email address is just below. Let me know.

(Don Bennett, business writer and consultant, has been involved with city planning issues since the 1970s. His e-mail address is dcbenn@aol.com.)