Cities have always been generous in paying tribute to those whose contributions proved historically or culturally significant. The names of such individuals tend to live on with endless opportunities for lasting recognition in the form of streets, bridges, districts, public buildings, etc. In the case of Santa Rosa’s Mark McDonald, his contributions to a young Santa Rosa far outweighed any recognition he has ever enjoyed. I could make an argument that a bit of McDonald recognition here in Kenwood is also in order.
But first, some background.
Mark Lindsey McDonald was born in Washington County, Kentucky, May 5, 1833. Educated at New York’s Union College, destiny would soon lead him to the opposite coast and a far grander future than any he might have imagined. It was news of gold in California that first caught his attention and set into motion a series of events the benefits of which we enjoy yet today.
During his journey west he served as captain of a large wagon train, responsible for scouting a safe passage through remaining areas of hostility. Upon his arrival in Sacramento he had the advantage of two brothers who had preceded him, and with them set about building and operating toll roads serving mining interests in Virginia City.
It was in Virginia City that life would begin to unfold for young Mr. McDonald. Here he met Senator George Hearst, a valuable and lifelong friend with whom he would later partner in many lucrative mining ventures. And it was here, on his modest income that he saved money sufficient to buy a seat on the San Francisco Stock Exchange Board.
A stream of large stock and real estate transactions drew considerable attention. It’s noted in Stock Exchange history that McDonald, a Kentuckian with sandy hair and beard, stood six-feet-four and was a power on the floor. It was during this period he met and became a close friend of both Leland Stanford and Charles Crocker, two of the Central Pacific “Big Four.”
An interest in land brought McDonald to Santa Rosa in 1879. He purchased 160 acres on the city’s then-southern boundary and began planning a tract of homes befitting this promising young town. Other investments in the area included orchards, fruit packing plants and basalt quarries, all with local markets ready and waiting.
To provide fresh water to both his tract and the city in general, McDonald built the Santa Rosa Water Works, the reservoir of which is still enjoyed today as Lake Ralphine in Howarth Park (Mrs. McDonald was the former Ralphine North of Natchez, Mississippi).
Worthy of note also were his administrative efforts as a member of the city council and as president of the Library Association working to establish Santa Rosa’s first free public library.
He beautified the city with extensive and exotic landscaping of his McDonald tract and the grounds of “Mableton,” today’s McDonald Mansion, this with the able guidance of fellow Santa Rosan, Luther Burbank.
He’s remembered also for designing the first street rail system in the city providing convenient access to downtown from outlying neighborhoods and for bringing to Santa Rosa the first steam railroad with a direct route to Sacramento and the East.
So that should more than make a case for any tribute since bestowed upon Mark McDonald by a grateful Santa Rosa. But what about Kenwood? Why should the good folks of Kenwood dedicate a bridge or a street or a park – or even a day – to this man?
Let’s consider the facts.
Mark McDonald’s circuitous journey to Santa Rosa was not an easy one, but when he arrived he did so with close personal ties to three of the state’s most powerful men, two of which controlled the Central Pacific Railroad.
McDonald invested heavily in Sonoma County agriculture, at that time serving only a local market. It was McDonald’s desire to reach the eastern markets and expand his production that drove his creation of the Santa Rosa & Carquinez Railroad. In truth, this was a Central Pacific project at the urging of Mark McDonald and carried out under a cloak of McDonald integrity.
The highly respected McDonald found no resistance in securing rights-of-way across land that might not have been available to the not-so-likable likes of his Central Pacific partners.
Another opportunity also arose with this line: a real estate venture in the Los Guilicos region of pristine Sonoma Valley. Here was an opportunity to realize a quick profit and establish a long-term center of commerce benefitting the railroad – in other words, create a railroad town. A similar “San Carlos” project was in the works south of San Francisco.
We know what happened next. The tracks were laid. The town of Los Guilicos was laid out. And the depot was built. Trains began rolling in 1888. Mark McDonald’s fruit (and a great deal more) found an access to eastern markets and Central Pacific came out from hiding and officially took over the Sonoma Valley Line.
In 1895, Los Guilicos was officially renamed Kenwood, but the railroad town of investors’ dreams never did come to pass. The commercial center that was to transform the valley was instead assimilated by the valley – and a mere 40 years later, the trains were gone. The valley was still again. All was as it was, but for one addition; quiet, serene Kenwood.
So when you take your walk today, take a minute to appreciate our Kenwood stillness. Then take an extra minute to thank Mark McDonald. Were it not for the six-foot-four, sandy-haired Kentuckian with the powerful connections, our railroad – and our quiet little railroad town – might never have happened.
Mark Lindsey McDonald (1833-1917) and Ralphine North McDonald (1842-1918) rest in Santa Rosa’s Rural Cemetery on Franklin Avenue.