Petaluma’s days as a roadside attraction

On September 3, 1925, a motor caravan of 40 “cavemen”, dressed in the skins of cougars, panthers and wildcats, set out from Grants Pass, Oregon, to take possession of Petaluma, California. Before leaving, they made sure to book 26 rooms at the Petaluma Hotel – first asking permission to put a grotto in the lobby.

The cavemen were linked to a convention promoting the Redwood Highway, a new automobile route stretching from the Oregon Caves Monument outside of Grants Pass to the Sausalito Waterfront. The name “Redwood Highway” was coined in 1921 by AD Lee, a Crescent City hotelier, who believed the new scenic thoroughfare was too lucrative to be referred to by a simple number. Anyway, in 1926 it would officially become part of US Highway 101.

Lee’s inspiration for the name came from an environmental group called the Save the Redwoods League, which in 1918 mounted a campaign to preserve what remained of California’s ancient redwood groves as state parks.

Conservationists’ Call of the Wild spoke of a new wave of automobility sweeping the country. No longer hampered by miserable roads, the limited speed and endurance of horses pulling wagons and stages, or the inflexible schedule of steam locomotives, motor-savvy Americans set out aboard their “holiday agents » gasoline for road trips in the craziest regions. and most natural places on the continent.

To capitalize on the craze, Lee and a group of fellow entrepreneurs from Del Norte, Humboldt, and Mendocino counties started the Redwood Highway Association. For help convincing other counties to jump on the bandwagon, Lee reached out to fellow “booster extraordinaire” Bert Kerrigan, secretary of the Petaluma Chamber of Commerce.

Known for putting Petaluma on the map as “the world’s egg basket,” Kerrigan specialized in the kind of dazzling stunts that drew newsreel filmmakers to theaters across the country.

Her National Egg Day was full of eye-catching visuals like the Egg Parade, Egg Queen, Egg Ball, Hens and Horses Egg Day Rodeo and a “chicken hunt” on San Francisco’s Market Street accompanied by a biplane dropping chicken feathers affixed with coupons for free Petaluma eggs.

The opportunity to position Petaluma as one of the last civilized outposts before heading into the woods captivated Kerrigan. He set to work convincing Petaluma merchants to be the first to adopt the use of “Redwood Highway” in their advertising, followed by the Sonoma County Board of Trade and the Mayor of San Francisco.

By the time Lee and 150 other members of the Redwood Highway Association gathered at the Petaluma Hotel in 1925, Kerrigan had been shown the door as Petaluma’s trail master, having bled the Chamber of Commerce with his flamboyant waterfalls.

Its legacy on the Redwood Highway, however, lived on in the constant stream of automobiles and “car stages” crossing town on summer weekends, bound for what travel brochures described as “Wonderland most scenic paradise in the world, 100 miles of giant, pristine, pristine, untrammeled redwoods, with streams full of fish and woods full of game.

The majority of tourists came from Southern California. This led the Redwood Highway Association to believe it had a chance of moving Interstate 99 – the future Interstate 5 that runs through the Sacramento Valley – as the main trunk between San Francisco and Oregon, and reaping a part of the estimated $2 million ($32 million in today’s dollars) spent on roadside attractions along the way.

Moving on to tourist conquest, they changed their name to Redwood Empire Association.

The keynote speaker at their 1925 convention was Harvey Toy, California State Highway Commissioner. Thanks to a recent two-cent-per-gallon gas tax imposed by the state, Toy informed the group that he had the funds to iron out the problems on the Redwood Freeway, making it a traffic lane. safe and effective.

The association’s treasurer, Santa Rosa banker Frank Doyle, was part of a group advocating the construction of a bridge over the Golden Gate. He informed the group of the impact the bridge is expected to have on tourist traffic to the north. To avoid becoming a bottleneck, Petaluma would have to widen its main street from two to four lanes.

The prospect gave local traders pause. Main Street was not only the city’s main commercial thoroughfare, but the heart of its social connections and celebrations, with expansive 12-foot-wide sidewalks and convenient diagonal parking lanes.

The city had bent over backwards to assimilate the automobile since its arrival in 1903, paving the bumpy cobbles of Main Street with asphalt, converting hitching posts into parking lanes, replacing liveries and stables with garages and service stations. But the reduction in sidewalk widths and the imposition of parallel parking lots to accommodate four lanes of through traffic spelled the end of Main Street.

Keith P. Plain