Petaluma’s Past: 'The Panic,’ unsolved crimes, wacky ads
The “Gilded Age” of the 1870s and ‘80s featured an unprecedented rapid economic growth in the U.S., but then, in 1893, it all came to an agonizing end when a financial disaster hit the country. Over the next four years, more than 500 banks closed their doors, one-quarter of all railroads failed, 15,000 businesses went bankrupt, thousands of farms shut down and stock markets plunged, all leading to an unbelievable unemployment rate of 17%.
As a once-secure middle class failed to meet mortgage obligations, wide-spread despair became the theme of American life. Soup kitchens sprang everywhere, including here in Sonoma County. To make ends meet, people chopped wood, broke-up stones or just begged for food, as prostitution and crime soared.
That panic was second only in disruption to the Great Depression of the 1930s and its effects lasted all the way into 1897. Democratic President Grover Cleveland was blamed for it of course, and following his last year in office of 1896, it was to be another 14 years before a Democrat regained the White House. The tragedy also affected the countries of Germany, France, England, Russia, Argentina, Brazil and Australia, thus spurring even more immigration into the U.S. as the so-called “Gay Nineties” rapidly tanked.
Sonoma County’s population, then, was 34,500. Santa Rosa was 5,700 of that, while Petaluma had soared to 8,000 people. Our county had been hit by “The Panic,” but was still growing fast.
That fall of ‘94, the Christmas season was upon us, as usual, and Petaluma’s Steamer Gold would take you to San Francisco and back for just 50 cents, while the scow schooner “Wonder” was bringing loads of coal from S.F. to Sonoma County via the Petaluma Creek. Meanwhile, the crews who worked on those sand-bar-avoiding crafts were found each night, not avoiding the “long bar” at Petaluma’s Pioneer Hotel.
The Petaluma Incubator Company was branching out that year, offering a very different product -- something called the bicycle. The company offered the “highest type of wheel” for $40 bucks, while the White Cyclery in Santa Rosa would fix your bike if it was “sick, broken, busted or bent,” according to local newspaper ads. The bicycle craze was sweeping the world in the ‘90s, and just in the year of 1894 more than 250,000 bikes had already been sold in America. Most of those cyclists had found the ride to be a new pleasure in life. It was cheaper than a horse and few folks would return to the buggy or simple walking — plus something called the automobile was just around the corner.
Duck hunting in the marshes along the county’s creeks was all the rage that fall. Thousands of canvas back ducks were bagged and, when they returned into town, hundreds of those hunters also became “bagged,” as there were then no limits on either ducks or booze in Sonoma County, and a nice duck dinner was just the price of a few shotgun shells.
The perceived problem of rising immigration to Sonoma County was increasingly divisive at the time. The “we-got-here-first” mob of 1894 had become very nasty and, in regards to a new U.S. Congressional bill to halt all Korean, Japanese and Chinese immigration, Petaluma’s Daily Courier editor, in slur-filled commentary, frequently shouted, “We must be protected!” What incredible hypocrisy, given that just a few decades earlier, settlers had initiated a similar eviction move upon the lands of local Native Pomo and Miwok tribes.
One interesting news item in Sonoma County that 1894 Christmas month (as reported in the Daily Sonoma Democrat) was “The Big Robbery” in Santa Rosa. Captain Peter Stofen, our county treasurer, was surprised by a man wielding a knife. The dude knocked Stofen out cold, stole more than $6,000 ($191,000 in today’s money), and locked him in the county vault, where he remained until his wife came to see why he had missed dinner. Fortunately, the Captain had insisted that she, too, memorize the vault combo, and she got him out just before he suffocated. The building’s alarm wires had been professionally cut and even the experienced Pinkerton Detectives found “not the slightest clue to the dastardly deed.”
It remains an unsolved crime.
Time marches forward, of course, and by the late ‘90s, in Santa Rosa, Cloverdale, Petaluma and Sebastopol, many new buildings had began springing up as the depression slowly came to an end. Miles of new cement sidewalk was laid, streets were improved and school attendance was up.
Electric lights had even begun to be installed at a few busy intersections.
As the turn of the century approached, our way of life was outpacing the rest of the country, jobs were actually becoming plentiful and folks from other not-so-happy states finding their way here in larger numbers.
If getting out of the area was your goal, however, Southern Pacific Railroad was offering escape in the form of what was advertised as “a vestibuled train, lighted entirely by gas, for travel between San Francisco and New Orleans.” It took 97 hours to get there, though, and first you had to get to San Francisco. This was long before the Golden Gate Bridge was built, of course, so travelers would take a paddle-wheeled steamer up the river to the City, then take a buggy to the railroad terminal in time for that 97 hour ride to New Orleans.
Patience, and a lot of spare time, was obviously a requirement.
Stay safe folks, and happy holidays.
Skip Sommer is an honorary lifetime member of the Petaluma History Museum and Heritage Homes. You can reach him at SkipSommer31@gmail.com.