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Petaluma’s Past: Our Petaluma Slough, the early years

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The Petaluma River basin has recently been designated, and I quote, “An environmentally critical wetland in need of preservation.” That sparked me to imagine how it must have appeared early on in the 1830s, the awe that must have been felt by those pioneers, when they first viewed our Petaluma Valley. Bear, elk and deer were prevalent, the sky was oft clouded-over by winged game, berries and grapes graced the hills, and great schools of sturgeon and steelhead trout swam in the twisting tidal slough.

In 1836, a 27-year old Mexican “Commandante-General” named Mariano Vallejo was awarded a land grant to a vast wilderness of 44,000 acres here. One year later, it was enlarged to 66,000 acres, and it was our tidal slough that decided the location for his Rancho Adobe home. In that year, the “Indian Wars” were raging on America’s frontier west of the Missouri River, but the Pomo and Miwok Tribes of the Petaluma Valley were non-violent hunters and gatherers, and the bounty of the Petaluma basin had made their lives relatively easy. Vallejo hired hundreds of them to work his Rancho.

Then, just 12 years later, the great Gold Rush of 1849 changed everything, as thousands of men from all over the world flocked to California, and some of those “49ers” brought their gold to Petaluma. By 1850, California had become our 31st State, and though Petaluma was still a small village of 560, the “word” was getting out.

By 1851, our population had nearly doubled to 970.

Tom Baylis, who had sailed around Cape Horn in 1850 for gold, wandered up the Petaluma Creek in a small craft. He and friends Thomas Lockwood and David Flogdell were armed with rifles and traps and they set up camp on the creek. These dynamic men pooled their resources and skills to survive by hunting and fishing. At that time, a deer carcass went for $20 bucks in San Francisco, a dozen quail for $9, and that was big money then.

Soon, alongside our creek, “Doctor” August Heyermann built one of the first cabins in our village, and his wedding ceremony here was also a first for Petaluma. He had been a popular “Trail Doc” for a large wagon train, and had found that dispensing opium for 25 to 40 cents a dose had staked him to mining equipment. (Uh huh).

Meanwhile, San Francisco, Stockton and Sacramento were in dire need of agricultural produce, and Petaluma was eager for trade. Some products traded back up-creek to Petaluma included cigars, rifles, matches, whiskey and gunpowder. (Not the best mix, I think). By ’54, Baylis and Flogdell had set up a stone-walled trading post at the river end of what would become ‘B’ Street.

It was sort of a wilderness 7/11, and it thrived.

(Those walls are now part of The Great Petaluma Mill.)

Garrett Keller had built a warehouse and “Eatery” on Water Street in ’53, and a year later, he drew-up a plan of 40 acres for our town‘s layout. That really put progress in gear, and the first bridge was built across the creek at what would then be named Bridge Street (later Hopper, now Lakeville). However, that wooden structure collapsed in 1861, under the weight of a herd of cattle, and was not rebuilt.

Sanitation and hygiene were hard to find here then, with no sewerage or clean water systems, and just a boil or burn could kill you. Pouring whiskey on wounds was an accepted cure, unless one opted for the Miwok ‘cow-dung-poultice.’ (Ugh!)

There were plenty of complaints about migrants then as well, as 20,000 Chinese men sailed to California for gold. And, to affect our population even more, N.Y. newsman Horace Greely told Americans to “Go west, young man, go west!” and thousands did just that. That year, Los Angeles and San Francisco were incorporated, Levi Strauss made his first pair of pants using rivets, and two men named Wells & Fargo opened a shipping outfit they called American Express.

By 1855, population here had reached 1,200, as homesteaders flooded in. Petaluma’s large number of saloons were a testament to the daily grind of survival, and one form of relief from that grind was that provided by the ‘Girls’ working upstairs over the saloons. One could purchase a bath there, with your choice of “cold water, warm water, first water or second water.” A lady to wash your back was “Extra.”

Apparently, the sailors plying our creek really liked that feature.

In 1858, Petaluma officially became a chartered city. We had acquired such refinements as churches, schools and fire and police protection by then, and a lot more craft were plying our creek. In fact, that year, we were named the busiest waterway in the State of California, and a substantial 16’ wide wooden swing-bridge was built over the creek, at the busy junction of Main and Washington.

By 1864, civil war had been raging in America and Union sympathizers were welcomed to “Republican Petaluma.” To accommodate that new creek traffic, our Board of Trustees voted for something called a “tax,” to pay for dredging and straightening, by Chinese labor, of the then-clogged waterway. The terrible California drought that year was mainly felt to the south, while our own agricultural production continued to expand and thrive.

By 1900, we were celebrating a great sixty-some years of waterway activity. Warehouses, feed mills, railroads, shops and hotels had been built and the city had grown-up around them. Indeed, merchandise continued to be shipped out of Petaluma, on what had evolved from a sluggish tidal slough, to a usable creek, to a very active river, then carrying thousands of tons of (guess what?) poultry and eggs.

We still love our good ol’ Petaluma River, a community legacy as it ambles thru town.

Here’s a novel idea … how ‘bout we dredge it?

(Historian Skip Sommer is an honorary life member of Heritage Homes and the Petaluma Historical Museum. Contact him at skipsommer@hotmail.com)