Against the Wind
the Fight for Public Utilities
Note: this article was originally written for the City of Healdsburg in 1993
Healdsburg: An Overview
The town of Healdsburg is surrounded protectively by a picturesque forested mountain and a confluence of lovely waterways. The same natural resources that draw residents and visitors here today also attracted colonists in prehistoric times. The area now known as Healdsburg was a focal point of the California Native American community. With 23 known village sites in the immediate vicinity, it was one of the most densely populated areas north of Mexico before 1820.
By the 1840s Mexican colonials, and finally the European and American settlers reached the area. The Southern Pomo and Wappo Native tribes were soon decimated by disease, the hostility of whites, and the disruption of Euro-American settlement. By the 1870s, the survivors were forced into a meagre living as unpaid agricultural or day laborers on local farms.
Since before its official platting by founder Harmon Heald in 1857, and its incorporation in 1867, Healdsburg has been an agricultural town. The rich alluvial soil near the course of the Russian River and Dry Creek constituted some of the most coveted farm land in the state. So coveted was the land that it precipitated what might be the longest running squatters' wars in the state of California from 1853 to 1864.
Since the 1880s the local economy has been based primarily on fruit crops and their related industries. By 1870 Healdsburg had a population of about 1600 and by 1900 it had 1,912 people living within the city limits. About 3,000 more lived in the outlying areas.(1) Having reached its optimum level as a supply town for an outlying agricultural community, Healdsburg's population hovered near 2,000 for the next 40 years. Finally, in 1950 there began a steady population increase, resulting in a figure approaching 10,000 in 1993, and 11,254 in 2010.(2)
Healdsburg was the eighth city in California to establish a municipal public electrical power utility, the culmination of an epic battle, with electricity flowing on February 13, 1900. As will be seen, politics played just as important a role in the development of Healdsburg's consumer-owned utility as its plentiful natural resources. In the end, it is initiative, determination, and successful political maneuvering on the part of local citizenry that creates and maintains such systems.
The Development of Private Utilities: Gas and Water
The story of Healdsburg's utilities begins with petroleum gas. The Healdsburg Gas Company was organized and commenced work, with Joseph Rosenthal as manager, on November 9, 1875. Similar petroleum "gasolyne" works (thought to be superior to coal gas lighting) had already been established in several nearby towns including Petaluma, Bodega, and Litton.(3) At the city trustee meeting of November 15, 1875, the Healdsburg Gas Company was granted the privilege of laying gas mains through all the streets of Healdsburg.(4)
A more difficult question, that of a city franchise for the utility, was taken up at a special city trustee meeting on November 19, 1875. The trustees were made up of local merchants Henry K. Brown (a merchant from Arkansas), George J. Turner (a baker from Michigan), Henry Fried (a saloon owner from Germany), and T. C. Carruthers. The most colorful of the group was Thomas Wade Hudson, boyhood friend of town founder Harmon Heald, who followed him to the area in 1852 and once owned a ferry across Russian River. He later became an enterprising rancher, was an ardent Democrat and native of Virginia, rumored Ku Klux Klansman, and one-time representative to the California State Assembly.(5)
On December 6, 1875, this group granted the Healdsburg Gas Company an exclusive privilege to manufacture and sell gas in Healdsburg for an indeterminate time period. This generous action on the part of the trustees may have reflected a lack of competitive interest in Healdsburg's gas franchise, although such liberal-term franchises were typical of an early municipal reluctance to regulate utilities.(6)
Only two months later a more competitive situation arose regarding water for the town. At that time, the Republican party, the "Party of Abraham Lincoln" was progressive. Beginning on February 3, 1876, the local Republican newspaper, the Russian River Flag, began reporting on the progress of Edgar M. Morgan of the California Water Works Construction Company, who had commenced building near Tucker and University Streets.(7) Soon Morgan and his partners were granted the privilege of laying water pipes in the city, and a 50-year franchise.(8)
Despite this franchise on March 20, 1876, the trustees did not hesitate to grant Petalumans F. T. Maynard, John Fritsch, and Mr. Bowman the ...privilege of laying iron pipes and water mains through all the streets of Healdsburg, they agreeing to furnish to the city free of cost water for the extinguishment of fires... This franchise was also granted for 50 years. Water was eventually obtained for this company from a spring at the base of Fitch Mountain, two miles from town.(9)
The behavior of the trustees in fostering competition between these two water companies by granting two non-exclusive franchises was typical of the period from 1850 to 1900. Municipalities sought to limit monopolistic utility practices by fostering competition rather than direct regulation. Healdsburg's trustees took into account the city's best interests (free water for the volunteer fire department) and limited both franchises to 50 years.(10) That this action so closely followed the permissive exclusive gas franchise would seem to indicate either a lack of competitive interest in local gas development, or a large pay-off by the gas company.
The Russian River Flag noted with mild disapproval,...Healdsburg promises two Water Companies. Who will say our citizens are not enterprising?(11) It seems that by August 14, 1876, the Healdsburg Water Company, organized by Maynard, Fritsch, and Bowman, had discouraged Morgan's California Water Works Company from continuing with their work, and the latter debarked.(12) The City entered into contract with the Healdsburg Water Company by November 1876. A provision of that contract (charging 40 cents per foot for 4" iron pipe from Matheson Street to Tucker Street, and $60 for one hydrant) shows that the city was underwriting part of the development costs.
Battle of the Newspapers
Serious trouble later erupted over the water company's practices and service, and a new rival newspaper, the Healdsburg Enterprise (founded by staunch Democratic brothers John and Felix Mulgrew in May 1876) took sides against the local Republican voice, the Russian River Flag over the issue.(13) At that time the political parties were nearly the reverse of those in our own time. The Republican party, the Party of Abraham Lincoln, was the progressive group, with the Democratic party representing the conservative, anti-immigrant, pro-capitalist stance.
The Enterprise first hinted at the controversy along with an article reporting the Water Company's water rates for 1878 ($1.50/month residential, $1.00/month irrigation). The August 22, 1878, article amounted to a lengthy defense of the company, which was the ...best in the County. In reply to citizen's complaints, the Enterprise declared:
...If our citizens expect capitalists to spend their money here by inaugurating the various improvements we need, they must learn to appreciate honest endeavor, liberality, and enterprise…(14)
Biding its time, the Flag broke a story on October 3, 1878, that the Water Company had violated a contract with the Ladies Industrial Society, and suggested that the owner fire the manager, Jonas Bloom. That controversy, which involved a contract for water to supply the Healdsburg Cemetery and its fountain, was in full swing by the end of October. The Ladies Industrial Society formed in 1863 to supply water to Healdsburg’s new cemetery, raising $350 with five years of sewing circles, and with enough left over to build a fountain in 1876.
The Flag further criticized the inefficient service of the company, citing the danger of typhoid and its inability to extinguish large fires. It also hinted at collusion between company management and members of the volunteer fire department.
Opening old wounds, the Flag recounted that in 1876 the Healdsburg Water Company rushed in ...just after one of the most substantial companies in the state [the California Water Works Construction Company] had obtained a franchise, bargained for real estate, and made all the arrangements to do the honorable, liberal, and businesslike thing…(15)
Countering with its defense of the Healdsburg Water Company, the rival Enterprise newspaper hinted that the Flag had other reasons for their charges, and throughout the month the papers battled back and forth as to whether the water flow was sufficient to put out a fire.(16)
The controversy was finally laid to rest by the end of March1879 after the owners of the Healdsburg Water Company came from Petaluma to clean out the storage reservoir.(17) Although this may have been a tempest in a teapot, it did indicate that community factions had coalesced along political lines in Healdsburg on the question of public utilities as early as 1878.
There is no further record of any attempts to attract a new water company to Healdsburg until December 1893, when the trustees invited a new Water Works Company owned by J. W. Hartsell, Edward E. Britton and Associates, to convey water underlying the Russian River to and through Mendocino, Sonoma, and Marin Counties to furnish water to its towns, including Healdsburg.(18) The Hartsell company apparently never took up Healdsburg's generous offer.
Meanwhile the Healdsburg Gas Company was struggling to keep up with new technology. The company had a new owner, John N. Bailhache, a native of France, an attorney and large local landowner, who married Josephine Fitch, daughter of Sotoyome Land grant owner Henry D. Fitch. He underwrote an entirely new works for producing coal gas that was installed under the supervision of superintendent and engineer L. A. Kelley by September 1878, at the foot of Matheson Street. The old petroleum gasolyne works had proved insufficient for demand, and so had been abandoned. Kelley installed similar works, reputed to be of his own design, in Santa Rosa and Petaluma. This time both rival newspapers approved of the development and the Flag strongly urged all citizens to discard their old coal oil lamps.(19)
The city took a contract for five gas lights for an average of $25 payment per month.(20) Despite political support, however, by 1880 the gas company had apparently been mortgaged and monthly payments were made directly to the Bank of Healdsburg.(21)
All went smoothly for several years with stable water and gas rates, approved by the city trustees, until 1884. In that year the City contracted with the new owners of the Healdsburg Water Company, F. and A. Koenig, to purchase water for fire purposes (formerly free to the city) for $150 a month.(22) It would seem that the perks to the city did not last as long as the franchise.
Electric Plant in a Brandy Distillery
By January 4, 1892, the trustees had new projects and technology to consider. On that date they granted a non-exclusive 50-year franchise for an Electric Light Plant to J. G. Gardner and R. A. Davidson. Nothing came of it. In 1893 Baron Von Schilling, owner of a grape must factory (used in making brandy), was granted the privilege of laying a sewer. It appears that the sewer project did not materialize either, but Baron Von Schilling instead began a small electric plant at his brandy distillery by installing dynamos.(23)
On December 4, 1893, the city trustees granted a two-year franchise for an Electric Light and Power Plant to D. Henshaw Ward and A. H. Babcock, successors to the Baron, who were building a new plant after abandoning the old dynamos at the brandy distillery.(24) Incandescent light thus first came to Healdsburg. It is this company, Electric Light and Power, which survived to achieve infamy in local public utility history.
The trustee vote to grant the Ward and Babcock Electric Light Company franchise was a split decision, 3 to 2. Communications between the trustees and the Babcock Electric Company continued throughout 1894, mainly regarding the specific nature of service to the city. It was finally agreed on November 8, 1894, that the company would donate and maintain four arc streetlights, and would furnish City Hall with four 32-candlepower incandescent, and ten 16-candlepower incandescent lights for one year for $42.50. This time only one trustee dissented. Twenty-two 32-candlepower incandescent lights were later substituted for the arc lights, which the company could not make functional.
The Fight for Public Utilities Is On
The city trustee split vote on the electrical franchise might have been the first faint breeze in an approaching storm. Initially dissatisfaction manifested itself not only in closer scrutiny of the new electrical franchise, but in increased vigilance over all the private utility providers.
The trustees decided to take a closer look at Frank Koenig's Water Works. On December 22, 1893, they requested from him for the first time (on oath) an accounting of all the company's users, places of residence, amount paid during the year, and revenue derived from all sources. By California state law, Healdsburg could have demanded such information since 1881. Water rates for 1894 were nevertheless set at the 1893 level.(25)
The first official reference to a municipally owned water works came at a city trustee meeting on April 1, 1895, when an uncarried motion was put forth to advertise for bids for a water plant. The stated impetus for this motion appears to have been the need for street sprinkling, and an engineer had already been contracted to draw up specifications for that plant. Trustees William H. Barnes and G. W. Wolcott were for the plant, but Rowland and Hall were against it, advising that water be purchased from the Healdsburg Water Company. The motion was withdrawn and the water was so purchased (15 cents per thousand gallons).(26)
Almost eight months after the first official mention of a municipal water system, the subject was raised in a meeting of private sector businessmen. The report of the meeting appeared on October 24, 1895, in the Healdsburg Tribune. The Tribune was a Republican standard bearer founded by 18-year old Louis Meyer, son of a pioneer Jewish merchant, during the 1888 political campaign, one year after the valiantly progressive Russian River Flag had been absorbed by the its rival the Democratic Healdsburg Enterprise. The public was informed that a movement for a municipal water works had been initiated at a meeting of the Healdsburg Board of Trade. The Board of Trade, organized by local businessmen to promote Healdsburg in May of 1890, was described by the Tribune in 1895 as the ...chief businessmen... heaviest taxpayers [who] are in a better position to understand the needs of Healdsburg to foster attraction for strangers, homeseekers, and investors.(27)
Under two successive editors the Healdsburg Tribune made the Municipal Water Works its Cause Célèbre. Beginning with its first report in October 1895, the weekly paper printed articles about the Municipal Waterworks Project, exposés on the Healdsburg Water Company's exorbitant rates or inefficient service, or exhorting editorials—and sometimes all three—in almost every single issue until the project was finally successful in a local bond election on March 28, 1898.
Unfortunately the opposing view, held by the Healdsburg Enterprise, can only be inferred from editorials or rebuttals that appear in the Tribune. There are no known issues of the Enterprise existing in any California archive from those years.
Additionally, a third local newspaper, the Democratic or Socialist Sotoyome Sun, instituted by J. C. Keene on February 7, 1898, (last issue: March 6, 1908) also has no known issues in existence during this period. However it is possible that Jacob C. Keene, a native of Germany born in 1848, started the Sotoyome Sun precisely because of the public utilities issue.(28)
Due to the singular intensity of this 30-month battle, it will only be summarized here. A turning point in local politics and municipal enterprise, the Water Works controversy aptly illustrates the passions, concerns, and biases of a small California town in an era that has yet to be labeled by California historians as "Progressive"—the 1890s.
Yet this controversy cannot be seen as purely political, Republican versus Democrat. It should be noted that in two Sonoma County historical publications, one in 1880 and the other in 1898, the Democratic Healdsburg Enterprise, which opposed municipally owned utilities, was considered to be the pre-eminent newspaper in Healdsburg with a wider subscriber base.(29)
On November 7, 1895, the Tribune exulted that a ...new era in the annals of Healdsburg is dawning and silurianism will soon be sleeping its last sleep. Silurianism here is used to refer to Paleozoic or prehistoric times.(30) In that same issue it reported on City Trustee Wolcott's protest of the Healdsburg Water Company's water bill to the city (raised from $150 to $256 per month), and a Healdsburg Board of Trade meeting wherein reincorporation of the town was discussed.
At the reincorporation meeting the audience was addressed by City Trustees Guy Walter Wolcott (1848–1920), a carpenter who came to Healdsburg from Wisconsin as a young boy, and John Favour (1838–1926), also a carpenter, raised in Wisconsin, and later a lumber mill owner and banker.(31) The meeting was presided over by President (and Mayor) William Harrison Barnes (1839–1920), a shoemaker from Missouri. His brother, pioneer E. Harrison Barnes, established the first trading post in northern Sonoma County in 1850.(32) All spoke in favor of municipal bonds to construct a municipal waterworks. To pay off the old debt, Favour even went so far as to urge private citizen subscription, promptly pledging $25 himself. Barnes urged the organization of a stock company to maintain the plant until the city could buy it.
From November 1895 to January 1897 most discussion involved investigation of the efficiencies and costs of various water systems. Endless committees of the Board of Trade and city trustees were formed and reformed, and duly reported in the Tribune. They visited waterworks in Cloverdale, Santa Rosa, and Ukiah.
Paul Perkins, engineer for the Santa Rosa Waterworks, and Mayor E. F. Woodward of Santa Rosa were called on repeatedly to speak to the group, which now referred to itself as a citizen's semi-monthly meeting for the advancement of city waterworks and sewerage. Various bonds were considered and their implications analyzed. Eventually the choice of systems was narrowed to two, a gravity system from Mill Creek, or a pumping system from the Russian River.(33)
At first sentiment did not favor buying out Koenig's old water plant, but admonitions from Santa Rosa, which had become embroiled in a conflict with its privately owned water company, convinced all that Koenig should be bought out.(34)
In March 1896 the Trustees resolved to put the question of a municipal waterworks to the voters. In April the bond issue passed at the general election 289 to 94. The only naysayer ever reported in the Tribune during this time was a Board of Trade member, a Mr. Turner, who put forth the resolution that interest-bearing bonds upon the City would be detrimental to the interests of the laboring classes. The motion received no second.(35)
Arguments used to convince the public of the necessity of a municipal waterworks centered largely on the fear of typhoid fever from polluted water supplies, the inability of the current system to put out fires, the lack of fire insurance or high premiums, and a desire to attract new residents, especially rich, retired businessmen from San Francisco.
In the midst of this great project Tribune owner and editor, 27 year-old Louis Meyer, abruptly left his fledgling newspaper in Healdsburg to become a merchandiser in Central America. On March 11, 1897, a new owner and editor, F. W. Cooke, took over. Cooke, a 37 year-old California native, had already amassed 17 years experience in newspapers in San Francisco and Oakland and had been foreman of the composing room at the widely read Daily Alta California until that paper's demise in June 1891.(36) Cooke was obviously a progressive Republican, and he picked up Meyer's waterworks campaign without missing a beat.
The rival Enterprise was now owned by a woman, Lizzie Livernash. Her brothers, John and Ed had purchased the paper from the Mulgrew brothers in 1890. A brilliant writer, Ed Livernash soon left to write for the S. F. Examiner. John Livernash left Healdsburg to work at the State Printing Office and was later appointed Harbor Commissioner of San Francisco by Democratic governor James H. Budd.
By 1897 the Enterprise was indifferently edited by T. M. Menihan, son of Mike Menihan, a hotel owner in Cloverdale, who was known as the good "angel" of the newspaper. During this period the paper was strangely quiet about the waterworks issue until goaded into print by F. W. Cooke.(37)
Between March 1897 and the time of the second special election on the city bond issue on March 28, 1898, the Tribune and the Enterprise kept up a running dialogue, initiated mostly by the Tribune through baiting editorials. News articles at this time concerned detailed studies by city trustees and a newly hired engineer, Paul Perkins, on gravity and pumping system feasibility. Trustees Wolcott and Barnes favored a pumping system, as did Engineer Perkins. Trustee Favour and newly elected Trustee Henry Holt Pyne (Democrat plasterer born in 1851 in New York) favored a gravity system. The remaining trustee, John Young, yet another carpenter, born in Pennsylvania, rarely attended meetings due to ill health.(38)
Although an electric plant was not mentioned at this time, it is perhaps significant that after March 1897, city trustees entered into only very short-term contracts with Babcock's Electric Light Company.(39)
Healdsburg Must Be Progressive
Despite the first successful bond issue election it should not be construed that all Healdsburg citizens enthusiastically backed the waterworks project. One unnamed trustee was ready to give up the project entirely seeing the people do not take much interest in it.(40) A dismally small attendance at a public meeting with the trustees on the subject indicates apathy in the town's general population.(41) Perhaps to combat such apathy, the Tribune ran lengthy weekly editorials (sometimes more than one per issue) beginning in September 1897.
Tribune editor F. W. Cooke declared in bold headlines that this project was The Living Issue, and that Healdsburg Must Be Progressive. Letters to the editor darkly hinted that low fevers prevailing among us are a warning, stating that the day has gone by for paying tribute to monopolies.(42) Cooke pledged himself to county and municipal reform and progress.(43)
Although the Enterprise's first reactions were reportedly agreeable to the waterworks project, it stated that many years of effort on the editor's part had not convinced the public. An Enterprise quote via the Tribune: Healdsburg doesn't want a better water supply...doesn't want to hold another election...[it is a] needless expense...Our people believe that what would do ten or twenty years ago is good enough now...Perhaps if the agitation for a better water supply ceased, the owner of the present system might improve the plant and furnish us more Adam's ale…(44)
But editor Menihan's conservative attitude was no match for editor Cooke's snappy retorts:
...if the people of this town had gone to work to produce microbes for profit they could not have worked more systematically nor effectively than they have...more property will be [destroyed by fire] in one night, than the most expensive system will cost...we have the support of the more intelligent class of our citizens in this course…"(45)
Less than a week after these statements were made, a large fire swept through downtown Healdsburg, destroying five stores in three buildings on the main street. Editor Cooke did not seem to mourn the loss of the old wood-frame buildings (that a City ordinance had banned) in the early Sunday morning fire. There were no injuries. In fact the Tribune downplayed the Associated Press's estimate of damages of $50,000 (more like $5,000 to Cooke). The Tribune editor hoped that brick structures would be built there soon.(46)
A most interesting and unexpected development came at a city trustee meeting on December 9, 1897, when the trustees failed to pass a motion for approval of a pumping type water system, in order to consider a combination Municipal Electric Light and Water Plant. Profits from an electrical plant to support both projects may have been the motivating factor.
The Tribune, ecstatic, stepped up its outright campaign, even going so far as to attempt a city-wide poll. Figures and letters to the editor flew.
Suicide Quiets the Storm
In January 1898, the Enterprise was sold to W. Harper of Spokane. Former owners John and Lizzie Livernash were reported to have moved to San Francisco to work on the California Forester.(47) One month later news of the suicide of 27 year-old John Livernash reached Healdsburg. A long, rambling suicide note was printed in the Tribune. Nearly delirious, the letter mentions debts, friends and enemies, a libel suit with Claus Spreckels, and makes a direct plea to Democratic Governor James H. Budd.(48) As an epilogue to the colorful Livernash dynasty, it should be mentioned that Lizzie Livernash married Frank Koenig, the owner of the private Healdsburg Water Company, in 1900.(49)
With the sale of the rival Enterprise to new owners and the shocking suicide of its former owner, John Livernash, the battle between the local papers abruptly ceased. Still it appears that the new owner of the Enterprise only supported a Municipal Water and Sewer Works, not the electrical plant.(50)
On February 28, 1898, the trustees passed Ordinance 76, calling for a special election on March 28th for $80,000 in bonds to build a Municipal Electric Light and Water Works. The Tribune went haywire. Banner, bold-print headlines: WATER AND LIGHT: PROGRESS AND PROSPERITY hit town residents in every issue. Articles, facts, figures, and exhortation reigned. As all concerned had finally agreed on a pumping system from the old Gird Ranch reservoir on Geysers Road, the cost breakdown for the combined plant was as follows:
distributing system, water $24,000
old waterworks $9,999
outside pipelines $5,000
Light plant (plus pumping power & machinery for supplying city water) $42,000
Savings to city:
sale of water $3,000
sale of 1400 lights $5,880
on fire hydrants $528
on street lights $2,700
on city Hall & Library lights $150
on street sprinkling $1,000
minus operating expenses, interest and sinking fund $9,000
Net Savings to city $4,258 (51)
In its last issue before the election the Tribune published enlarged print, boxed testimonials from Santa Rosa City Clerk, C.L. Mobley, and a plain-talking promise to working men that the plant would bring $25,000 worth of construction work.(52) Editor Cooke promised that his ...Campaign has Ended [and the] question of whether Healdsburg is to rank with the foremost of the Progressive and enterprising towns of the state...would be decided by the people.(53)
The vote, on March 28, 1898, came in at 362 to 63 (6 to 1) in favor of the bonds.(54) However, unbeknownst to the joyous Tribune and city trustees, another battle lay ahead.
Battle with Babcock
Mr. Babcock, owner of the private Healdsburg Electric Light Company, entered the fray in February 1898. Babcock wanted $10,000 for his works. The City estimated the plant's worth at $5,000. Later the trustees offered him $7,500, but Babcock flatly refused to sell. Frank Koenig had settled amicably with the city for a payment of $9,000 for his waterworks.(55)
The regular election for city trustees in April 1898 endorsed the city fathers who had led the waterworks campaign, adding to their ranks (to replace Young) Australian T. S. Merchant (1841–1916), a traveling salesman and owner of several local businesses, including the Magnolia Cannery. Merchant had been a vocal supporter of the civic project.(56) Engineer G. M. Dodge of San Rafael soon set to work drawing plans and specifications for the waterworks, and engineer W. W. Barnes for the light plant.(57)
The bids for the bonds were opened on August 29th and only one bank, the Oakland Bank, had tendered the required certified check for 2% of the bond. It was therefore selected, and was also the highest bidder at a $2,650 premium over the face value of the $80,000 bond.
The bids for construction were also opened, but deliberation on these stretched into a marathon that lasted until 2:00 a.m. on Friday, and all day Saturday, Sunday, and Monday. James Stanley of Oakland got the bid to build the waterworks at $31,700.(58)
Less than one week later however, the attorney for the Oakland Bank advised City Attorney Moreland that the bonds were illegal. The crux of the matter involved the question of the bond election, whether the bond proposition should have been put to voters under separate heads: a waterworks bond and a separate electric plant bond. The city maintained that the two were so interconnected as to be one proposition.
The Oakland Bank promised to purchase the bonds only if the city took the case before the State Supreme Court, thus making them gilt-edged securities, and eventually offered to pay one-half the court costs. With no other bidders, the trustees were over a barrel. On October 17, 1898, they decided to test the case.(59)
It was a difficult decision, with Trustees Pyne and Favour extremely reluctant, believing that the utility monopolies would fight them, delaying the court proceedings indefinitely.
Public Enemy Number One Cleverly Defeated
The City was saved the trouble of filing suit, however, since A. H. Babcock of the privately owned Electric Light Company sued for an injunction to stop the utility bond sale on October 26, 1898. Points raised in his suit were the same as those raised by the Oakland Bank’s attorney, as well as the legality of a municipally owned electric plant.(60)
Suddenly A. H. Babcock became Healdsburg's Public Enemy Number One. Tribune editorials now called his company the Healdsburg Electric Light Company of San Francisco. Editor Cooke explained that the San Francisco-based company was not afraid to lose customers in Healdsburg, as it meant to delay the court proceedings and bond sale indefinitely in order to discourage other cities from municipal utility ownership.
Nevertheless businessmen and private citizens were encouraged to boycott the company and a list of 15 local businesses that had already done so (including both newspapers and the city government itself) was printed prominently in both local newspapers. Healdsburg was finally united to fight a common enemy.(61)
On February 6, 1899, the trustees, in a daring strategic move, passed without fanfare City Ordinance Number 81 ...prescribing the kind and character of the materials to be used in the construction, maintenance, and repair of all electric lighting plants or systems now in use in the city. It also passed Ordinance Number 82, ...determining and declaring certain things in the city to be nuisances.
One month later the city clerk served notice on the Healdsburg Electric Light and Power Company to ...remove all unpainted poles and uninsulated wire within the city of Healdsburg which has been heretofore by Ordinance declared to be a nuisance within four days.
On the morning of March 15, 1899, city workmen began to knock down the Healdsburg Electric Light Company's poles. After several came down the manager of the company, Mr. Mayo, told the trustees that he would remove them himself if they would abate the order. He also informed the trustees that they had so crippled the system that it would probably never operate again. Although some citizens expressed concern about a damage suit against the City, most of Healdsburg (and none more than Tribune editor Cooke) applauded the trustees’ aggressive solution to the dilemma.(62)
The town was further encouraged when Babcock’s injunction suit was decided in the City's favor by Judge Burnett of the District Court in April. But the Oakland Bank still did not want the bonds until the case was cleared by the State Supreme Court. Fearing further delays, the trustees quickly accepted the offer of E. D. Shepard of New York to buy the bonds at the same premium as that offered by the Oakland Bank. Shepard later withdrew his offer, however, on the advice of his own attorney.(63)
The fact that the Healdsburg Electric Light and Power Company was sold to the Contra Costa Electric Light Company in June of 1899 was some consolation to the worried trustees, and in July the Santa Rosa National Bank finally came to their rescue and bought the bonds for only a $250 premium, legality untested.(64)
Babcock of the Electric Light Company came out with nothing for his trouble, save a ruined company. He filed two more injunction suits in November 1899, but both failed.(65) He filed another suit against the city for $30,000 on March 7, 1901.(66) Although the suit was litigated for over six years, the case never actually went to trial. On May 20, 1907, the Third Appellate District Court dismissed the complaint. Their decision was based on the ruling that the defendants, the city trustees, were acting ultra vires (outside of their conferred powers) when they dismantled Babcock's private electrical system. Therefore the City of Healdsburg, under the law, was not liable for their actions.(67)
Meanwhile, in 1899, construction bids were once again opened and after only two full days of deliberation the waterworks construction was again awarded to James Stanley, but for a higher price, $32,096. Stanley Electric Company got the bid for the Electric plant at $33,008.96. Because of the lowered bond premium received and the higher cost of construction, the city was faced with a deficit. They hoped to economize on the purchase of equipment.(68)
After such a legal battle to exercise Healdsburg's right to establish a municipal water and electric utility, the actual construction seems somewhat anticlimactic. Physical work began on August 24, 1899. The hydro-electric dynamos finally turned on at the Gird Ranch reservoir on Black Mountain on February 13, 1900, and electricity flowed into Healdsburg for the first time since Babcock's system was damaged almost a year before.
They had hoped to make the dynamos turn on the first day of the new century, but missed it by six weeks. Healdsburg citizens (or at least editor Cook) were no less joyous.(69) In a poem the following poem:
To Buy Or Not to Buy Power
As anyone might guess Healdsburg's work was far from done in regard to public utilities. As soon as it was completed, the reservoir on the Gird Ranch began to leak and needed substantial repair.(71) A colorful debate over the qualifications and competency of electrical engineer, W. W. Barnes, who had meanwhile been given the job of city engineer, made news at the same time.(72)
A successful subscriber rate to the electrical system taxed that system's output capacity by 1902. Because water supply for the hydro-electric works was limited, an additional $20,000 gas engine and generator was proposed, and rejected, by the board in February 1902. Economies instituted by new City Engineer, R. C. Nelson made the system adequate for additional hook-ups until 1904, when, in order to supply power for local industries and provide daytime service, the trustees authorized contracts for a boiler engine, oil burner, and electrical equipment for $8,937.(73)
As early as 1908 an ongoing public debate centered on whether the city should buy electricity from an outside source to supplement its supply. Former City Trustee, G. W. Wolcott (who helped institute the municipal electrical plant), wrote in the Tribune that the City had passed a resolution to purchase electrical power from the Snow Mountain Power Company, which would mean the closing down of our own plant. Wolcott wondered why there had been so little coverage on the issue. While proponents of the purchase plan had represented the City electrical plant as pretty much used up, requiring $25,000 in repair and maintenance, Wolcott compiled revenue and expense figures showing that the net benefits to Healdsburg with the current system came to $46,000. Finally he stated that a private businessman would not shut down such a plant, but would repair it.(74)
Two years later, after much discussion, the Board of Trustees finally opted to buy electricity from the Cloverdale Light and Power Company. In the Tribune of November 9, 1910, it was stated: This question has been a much mooted one in local circles and has been a severe bone of contention between certain of the city Dads. In the next issue an editorial asked, Shall Healdsburg Buy Electricity? The main points raised concerned the contract itself. At the presumed price of 2.5 cents per kilowatt, was it cheaper for Healdsburg to continue generating its own power? Should the contract be for one year instead of five years as proposed? The editorial concluded that the matter should be put to the voters.
More fuel was added to the fiery debate when a subsequent Tribune editorial hinted at possible corruption in the dealings of Cloverdale Light and Power Company officials: ...we would suggest to our readers that Mr. Sbarboro [of Cloverdale Light and Power] has not taken occasion to answer our several queries...And we still wonder why he answered for the Snow Mountain Power Company, when it has been repeatedly denied that any officer or stockholder in the Cloverdale Light and Power Company had any connection with the Snow Mountain Power Company.(75)
A petition to stop the electrical purchase plan was instigated by former trustee T. S. Merchant, another founder of the municipal electrical plant, and it was signed by a large number of leading citizens and taxpayers. Merchant charged that, Van Arsdale, who was prominent in the Snow Mountain Power Company had offered $125 per month and other concessions for any man with sufficient power to cause the City of Healdsburg to buy its electricity in place of making it. Merchant offered to produce an affidavit in support of his charge. The private power companies were very interested in selling electricity to Healdsburg, Merchant claimed, so that they could get control of the city's plant and eventually convert it into private ownership.(76)
Andrea Sbarboro, president of the Cloverdale Light and Power Company and also the founder of Italian Swiss Colony Winery, had a chance to answer these accusations at a meeting of the city trustees. He emphatically denied that anyone associated with his company had attempted to bribe or influence the trustees or had offered a reward to any individual to influence a contract between the City and Cloverdale Light and Power.(77)
The very next week the City of Healdsburg entered into a five-year contract with the Cloverdale company. The only consolation for opponents of the plan was a clause inserted before the signing of the instrument, giving the Board of Trustees the power to cancel the contract during a six-week period after the next trustee election.
Periodic improvements to the municipal electrical system allowed extension of service to Alexander Valley farmers in February 1910, and in May of that year to all seven surrounding valleys.(78) Electrical service was extended to Westside Road residences in 1914, and finally to Alexander Valley residences in 1921.(79)
Although it expanded, the electrical system was by no means perfect. In February 1911, Superintendent Nelson recommended that the board take some action regarding the street lighting, which was a disgrace to the city in every way.(80) Nevertheless the municipal plant continued to make a profit and provide benefits to the City in terms of free services such as street sprinkling, and water and lights for City Hall. In 1911 receipts for the electrical water and light plant exceeded expenses by $378.55, and combined benefits to the City were valued at $553.70. (81)
By 1920 the Gird Ranch hydro-electric plant was run down, the pipes from the springs leaked badly, and the aluminum supply lines from Alexander Valley to the Matheson Street substation caused considerable electricity loss. Even though the City replaced these with copper wire in late 1920, Healdsburg had outgrown the plant's capacity, purchasing now nearly as much electricity as they could produce.
Although much interest was generated locally in the possibility of utilizing John Grant's geothermal developments at the Geysers, the City finally made a five-year contract with the California Telephone and Light Company, a subsidiary of Pacific Gas and Electric Company, for the wholesale purchase of all of its electricity by early 1924. Later that same year the defunct plant was abandoned.(82) The only trustee left alive from the era of the municipal waterworks/electric plant fight to see the shutdown was John Favour, the carpenter turned lumber mill owner and banker from New York.
At final accounting, on June 2, 1924, figures showed that of the 26,000 kilowatts of power dispatched from the plant, only 7,022 was sold, the rest was absorbed in line and transmission losses. The old reservoir site for the plant, purchased in 1889 from Mary L. Jacobs, was finally sold to neighboring rancher, George Foote, in 1934.(83)
Even though the city no longer manufactured its electricity, it retained ownership of the utility, and it continues to be profitable to the town to the present day.
Water and Sewer Development
The original waterworks plant was adequate until May 2, 1904, when the city trustees authorized construction of a new reservoir alongside the old one on the Gird Ranch. A bond election in 1922 authorized $8,500 for new water mains. In 1949 a $170,000 bond issue authorized a new million-gallon concrete reservoir near Tayman Golf Course. In 1957 another 657,000 gallon reservoir was built on donated land by city revenues, and in 1960 $80,000 worth of improvements we made.(84)
Healdsburg was much more backward in its development of a sewage system. After being re-elected after the water and electric light plant battle, the trustees immediately formed a committee on the subject of sewers on April 23, 1900. Because of numerous delays, however, it was not until a special election for a $34,450 sewer bond on April 13, 1908, that the issue passed, 342 to 162. After two years of inaction, the same proposal (this time for a $45,000 bond) was defeated 72 to 122.(85)
The subject of a town sewer resurfaced in 1910, when public surveys seemed to suggest that the great majority of townsfolk were in favor of bonds or a tax for construction. Later that year Chamber of Commerce members toured other sewer systems in St. Helena and Yountville, and invited architect and civil engineer, W. H. Castner Jr. to visit Healdsburg and make suggestions for a system. As funds were limited, he recommended that the business district be completed first and that two septic tanks be built, one at the foot of Matheson Street near the Dirvin Cannery, and one at the foot of West Street near the railroad tracks (now the grassy area on the northwest corner of Healdsburg Avenue and Mill Street).(86)
The first sewer, built without bond money, was a modest system costing about $4,240 in 1911, financed from electrical sale profits. Finally, on June 7, 1937 a municipal sewer bond for $35,000 was passed, and a modern sewage purification system was built on Dry Creek, a mile outside of town.(87)
The problem with the sewers may have been the fact that the bottom dropped out of the municipal bond market, as previously stated, in 1907. The trustees just procrastinated too long.
Summary and Analysis
The successful movement for municipal ownership of utilities began with public coverage of a movement for a city-owned waterworks in 1895. Although substandard water service by a private company may have been an important motivating factor, the reform energy of the Healdsburg Tribune newspaper under two successive self-proclaimed Republican, progressive editors should not be underestimated. I would hate to have to count the number of words devoted to the issue by the paper, indefatigably, for more than 30 months.
But this was not by any means a Republican victory. At least one of the most vocal supporters of the movement from the very beginning, H. G. Pyne, was a staunch Democrat who was influential in the County Democratic Convention in 1898. The same voters who turned in a largely Democratic vote in the 1898 Congressional election were the same voters who passed this measure by a landslide. The Healdsburg Enterprise, which did not support the movement, was still the most widely-read newspaper in Healdsburg in 1898.
Likewise, the addition of the Electric Light Plant to the election agenda in 1898, may have been largely motivated by a desire for power-sale profits to support the waterworks. But anti-monopolistic rhetoric had also been evident from the trustees, and especially editor Cooke, from the very beginning of the battle. Certainly the private company's quality of service was never disparaged in print, although Babcock himself was portrayed as a fiend.
It would appear, therefore, that on a purely local issue, municipal improvement and self determination, Healdsburg exhibited a bipartisan coalition of progressively minded citizens who elected, and re-elected city trustees in the late 1890s who overcame extreme obstacles to secure that municipal control. As the campaign evolved, public apathy was successfully combated. The first bond issue, in 1896, drew a total vote of 383 (out of 492 registered voters). The second bond issue, in 1898 brought a total vote of 425 (out of 600 registered voters).
In most histories, like George Mowry's 1951 study, The California Progressives, the Progressive Era in California began in Southern California with the Good Government movement in 1906. More recently historians have noted the importance of other local initiatives in the 1890s. Martin Glaeser points out that The historic battleground upon which the issue of public versus private ownership has been fought in this country has been in local politics.(88) R. Hal Williams, in his 1973 study, points out that the ...legend of railroad domination [in California] misjudges the independence and honesty of a generation of Californians and completely ignores the significant accomplishments of these decades (1860–1900).(89)
Understandably, the actions of small communities like Healdsburg are often overlooked by historians. Yet small towns in California were in the forefront of the consumer-owned utility movement. Alameda, California established the sixth public utility in the nation in 1887. Eight years later Anaheim, Banning, and Santa Clara established their own electrical systems. Next followed Colton and Ukiah (1897), Azusa and Palo Alto (1898), and Healdsburg (1900). For the most part these were not large urban centers, but small towns with progressive civic leaders.(90)
Although Healdsburg may have regressed to a more cautious "silurianism" in the decades that followed, it is clear that Healdsburg, as editor F. W. Cooke enthused on March 4, 1898, made its bid ...to rank with the foremost of the progressive and enterprising towns of the state.
(see full citation for each source in "Bibliography" below)
1. Public Power in America: A History; pgs. 1-21. Scott Ridley and Richard Rudolph; Power Struggle, The Hundred Year War Over Electricity. The Public Benefits of Public Power, pgs. 1-17. Vic Reinemer; "Public Power's Roots", in Public Power, Sept.-Oct., 1982. Statistics on consumer- owned utilities in California in APPA Annual Directory Issue, Jan.-Feb.,1992, pgs. 63-65.
2. The overview of Healdsburg history was drawn from numerous historical sources in the Healdsburg Museum archives.
3. Russian River Flag newspaper, 11/11/1875 p. 3:1.
4. Healdsburg City Trustee Meeting Minutes, 11/15/1875.
5. Russian River Flag newspaper, 2/17/1870. Registration Affidavits, Great Register of Sonoma County, 1875. Russian River Flag, Volume XI, Number 43, 28 August 1879. Healdsburg Tribune newspaper, 11/27/1890, p. 3:4. Dr. William C. Shipley, Tales of Sonoma County, pgs. 134,135.
6. Martin G. Glaeser, Public Utilities in American Capitalism; p. 71.
7. Russian River Flag newspaper, 2/3/1876, p.3:2.
8. Ibid., 2/17/1876, p. 3:2.
9. Munro-Fraser, History of Sonoma County, 1880; p. 245.
10. Glaeser, pgs. 2, 14, 50, 59, 71-73.
11. Russian River Flag, 3/23/1876, p.3:2.
12. Healdsburg City Trustee Minutes, 8/14/1876 and 9/18/1876.
13. Healdsburg Tribune, Diamond Jubilee Edition, 8/26/40, p.3:2.
14. Healdsburg Enterprise newspaper, 8/22/1878, p.3:2.
15. Russian River Flag, 10/31/1878, p.3:1; 10/10/1878, p.3:1; 10/31/1878, p.3:3. Healdsburg Tribune, Enterprise and Scimitar, Number 40, 1 July 1976 (B5), 8 July 1976 (9).
16. Healdsburg Enterprise, 11/7/1878, p.4:4; 11/21/1878, p.3:1. Russian River Flag, 11/14/1878, p.3:1.
17. Healdsburg Enterprise, 3/6/1879, p.3:2; 3/27/1879, p.3:3.
18. Healdsburg City Trustee Minutes, 12/4/1893.
19. Russian River Flag, 9/19/1878, p.3:1; 10/17/1878, p.3:1. Healdsburg
Enterprise, 7/14/1878, p. 3:4; 8/8/1878, p. 3:4; 8/29/1878, p.3:3. Munro-Fraser, History of Sonoma County, p.245.
20. Healdsburg City Trustee Minutes, 7/1/1878.
21. Ibid., 11/1/1880.
22. Ibid., 11/3/1884. Note: There are only scattered issues of Healdsburg newspapers between 1979 and 1888.
23. Ibid., 3/6/1893; Healdsburg Enterprise, Diamond Jubilee Edition, 8/26/40, p.18.
24. Healdsburg Tribune, 11/16/1893; p. 1:7.
25. California State Senate Bills, Vol. 2, 1881, No. 100-199.
26. Healdsburg Tribune, 4/4/1895, p.1:2.
27. Sonoma County Tribune, 5/1/1890, p.3:4; 5/22/1890, p.3:3; Healdsburg Tribune, 10/24/1895, p.1:3.
28. Healdsburg Tribune, 1/17/1907, p.1:1; 12/28/1899, (Special Edition) p.13. Munro-Fraser, History of Sonoma County, p.245.
29. Illustrated Atlas of Sonoma County California, 1898, p.38.
30. Healdsburg Tribune, 11/7/1895, p.1:2. Webster's Dictionary defines "silurian": of or having to do with a very early period in the formation of the earth's rocks.
31. Favour: Healdsburg Enterprise, 1/14/26, p.1:6; Voter's Registration, Sonoma County, Mendocino Township. Wolcott: Healdsburg Enterprise, 3/13/20, p. 1:4; Healdsburg Tribune, 3/11/20, p.6:4.
32. Tom Gregory, History Of Sonoma County with Biographical Sketches, p.816.
33. Healdsburg Tribune, 11/14/1895; 11/1/1895; 12/19/1895, p. 1:5; 1/9/1896, p.1:1; 1/16/1896, p.1:1; 3/5/1896, p.1:1-3; 9/4/1896, p.1; 1/21/1897; 1/28/1897.
34. Ibid., 1/28/1897, p.1:4.
35. Ibid., 3/5/1896, p.1:3.
36. Ibid., 3/11/1897; 8/26/40 (Diamond Jubilee Edition), p. 34. Healdsburg Enterprise, 10/23/33. Illustrated Atlas of Sonoma County, 1898, p.38.
37. Healdsburg Tribune, 8/26/40 (Diamond Jubilee Edition), p.34; 1/14/1897, p.8:1; 3/11/1897, p.8:3; 5/6/1897, p.4:2.
38. Healdsburg Enterprise, 2/21/1878, p.3:4. Healdsburg Tribune, 2/8/11, p.1:5; 8/2/11, p. 8:4. Sonoma County Voter's Registration, Mendocino Township, 1896. Healdsburg City Trustee Minutes, 1897, 1898.
39. Healdsburg City Trustee Minutes, March 1897.
40. Healdsburg Tribune, 3/25/1897.
41. Ibid., 9/16/1897.
42. Ibid., 9/23/1897, p.4:2; 9/30/1897, p.1:3.
43. Ibid., 3/25/1897, p.1:3.
44. Ibid., 10/7/1897, p.4:2; 10/28/1897.
45. Ibid., 10/28/1897, p. 4:2. Photo of F. W. Cooke in Illustrated Atlas of Sonoma County, 1898, p.38.
46. Healdsburg Tribune, 11/4/1897, p. 1, 3, 4.
47. Ibid., 1/20/1898, p.1:5.
48. Ibid., 2/24/1898, p.1:1.
49. Ibid., 8/27/09, p. 1:2; 6/14/00, p. 1:1.
50. Ibid., 3/17/1898, p.1:1.
52. Ibid., 3/17/1898, p.1; 3/24/1898, p.1.
53. Ibid., 3/24/1898, p.4.
54. Healdsburg City Trustee Minutes, 4/4/1898. Healdsburg Tribune, 3/31/1898, p.1.
55. Healdsburg Tribune, 2/3/1898, p.1:3. Healdsburg City Trustee Minutes: 2/14/1898, 2/21/1898, 2/24/1898.
56. Illustrated History of Sonoma County, California, 1889, p.669.
57. Healdsburg Tribune, 5/2/1898, p.4:3.
58. Ibid., 9/1/1898, p.1:1. Healdsburg City Trustee minutes, August 29, 30, 31, Sept. 1, 1898.
59. Healdsburg Tribune, 9/8/1898, p.1:1, 4:1; 9/15/1898, p.4:2; 10/6/1898, p.1:1; 10/13/1898, p.1:2; 10/20/1898, p.1. Healdsburg City Trustee Minutes: Sept. 3,7,10,26,27; Oct. 3,6,15,17,1898.
60. Healdsburg Tribune, 10/27/1898, p.1:5.
61. Ibid., 10/27/1898, p.1:5; 11/3/1898, p.4:2; 12/8/1898, p.1:1; 1/12/1899, p. 4:3; 1/19/1899, p.4:2; 2/12/1899, p.1:2.
62. Ibid., 3/16/1899, p.1:5.
63. Ibid., 4/6/1899, p.1:5; 4/13/1899, p.1:4; 5/4/1899, p.1:1.
64. Ibid., 6/15/1899, p. 8:4; 7/6/1899, p.1:5.
65. Ibid., 11/16/1899, p.1:4; 11/30/1899, p.1:5.
66. Ibid., 3/14/01, p. 1:5.
67. Healdsburg Electric Light and Power Company v. The City of Healdsburg, 5 Cal. App. 558, 90 p. 955 (1907).
68. Ibid., 8/3/1899; 8/26/40 (Diamond jubilee Edition) p. 19.
69. Ibid., 8/24/1899, p. 1:4.
70. Ibid., 2/15/00, p.1.
71. Healdsburg City Trustee Minutes, 4/2/00.
72. Healdsburg Tribune, 3/1/00, p. 1:2, 4:2; 8/26/40 (Diamond Jubilee Edition) pgs. 49, 52.
73. Ibid., 8/26/40, p. 43.
74. Healdsburg Tribune 9/10/08, p. 1:1.
75. Ibid., 11/23/10, p. 4:1.
76. Ibid., 11/30/10, p. 1:1.
77. Ibid., 12/7/10, p. 1:1.
78. Ibid., 2/2/10, p. 1:5; 5/4/10, p. 3:3.
79. Healdsburg Enterprise, 7/2/21, p.1:3.
80. Healdsburg Tribune, 2/8/11, p. 1:4.
81. Ibid., 11/23/11, p. 1:1.
82. Healdsburg Tribune, 8/26/40, pgs. 43, 49.
83. Healdsburg City Trustee minutes, June 2, 1924. Healdsburg Tribune 8/9/34, p. 7:7.
84. Healdsburg Tribune, 8/26/40 (Diamond Jubilee Edition) p. 43.
85. Ibid., 8/26/40, pgs. 49, 52.
86. Healdsburg Tribune, 12/14/10, p. 1:1; 3/23/10, p. 1:3,4; 4/6/10 p. 1:3; 9/28/10, p. 1:6; Oral Interview with Morse "Shorty" Lownes, 11/92.104. Rogin and Shover, Political Change in California, p.37.
87. Healdsburg Tribune, 8/26/40, pgs. 49, 52.
88. Glaeser, p. 440.
89. Williams, p. 231.
90.Reinemer, "Public Power's Roots"; in Public Power; Sept.-Oct., 1982. APPA Annual Directory Issue, Jan.-Feb., 1992, pgs. 63-65.
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