Petaluma History Blog

Welcome to the New Petaluma History Room Blog!

This is the first in a new monthly series of blog posts – please join in and comment with insights and experiences...and some family history if you have some! Each month we’ll pick a topic to consider and I’ll include some images found in the Sonoma County Library Special Collections, newspapers, books, and when possible some on-line links so that you can follow up and get the whole story.

Petaluma, CA

Reading the news of the day, especially as the election here in town unfolded, the topic of dredging came up as part of the election conversation. I thought it would be an interesting look into the history of dredging here in Petaluma and discovered that it’s been a topic not only of conversation, but of interest to a wide variety of people from the Petaluma’s very beginning.

As early as the 1860’s, the newspaper reported on the desire to dredge the river. In February of 1892 Charles Minturn, the owner of the Steamer Petaluma “has commenced the work of straightening the creek so as to establish a landing for his boat at, or near, the Italian garden, one mile below this city”. (Petaluma Argus, Tues Feb 11, 1862). The ability to travel from here to San Francisco was desirable not only economically for shipping goods, but for local citizens.

Petaluma river barge photo

A brief history of the River in the September 25, 2015 Argus Courier

Around the late 1870’s new styles of dredging machines were invented and utilized on rivers across the country. They invited much speculation as to their possible use here. Finally in 1876, A bill was introduced, and passed in Congress to appropriate $25,000 for “the improvement of Petaluma Creek” (Petaluma Weekly Argus April 28, 1876). Work was accomplished, and the Steamers Gold and Petaluma among others plied their trade up and down the Creek.

How Petaluma Creek became a River

Through the years, the improvement of Petaluma Creek had its ups and downs with community desire and financing determining the ability to complete a regular dredging. It was in the late 1950’s that newly elected Congressman Clem Miller discovered that regulations in Washington determined whether a town could access the Army Corps of Engineers financing and assistance for dredging. Turns out – they’d dredge a river; but not a creek. This was a hurdle that Congressman Miller was determined to climb.

Ike Signs the Bill - Creek now a river photo

How Petaluma Creek became a River

Detail, U.S. Geological Survey “Petaluma” quadrangle, 1914. (U.S. Geological Survey)

He introduced a bill that would establish the Petaluma Creek as officially: Petaluma River.

The process of moving a bill through Congress is sluggish at best, but after it passed in August of 1959, Petaluma is moved forward in the process towards getting a River. All it needed was the President’s signature.

Ike Signs the Bill - Creek now a river photo

The Congressional Record shows no objection to the bill and it passed with little fanfare. The Record also shows a little back and forth conversation about the bill – with reference to the Army Corps of Engineers (did they not know the reason for the change? Maybe not!). Public las 86-193 was passed into law on August 25, 1959.

The Argus Courier, on August 29, 1959 celebrates the re-naming of the Petaluma Creek. It is now officially: Petaluma River.

The result of all this was a movement forward to the dredging of the River. This on-going improvement will be a part of Petaluma’s conversation for many years. Learn more about dredging and the focus being taken by the Petaluma City Council and Mayor Barrett’s “Dredge Pledge”


UPDATE: on February 2, 2020, Congressman Jared Huffman announced that the Army Corps of Engineers has allocated $9.7 million dollars towards dredging the river. Watch for more news as the process begins... and watch for wonderful results!


Clement Miller became best known for his work as the “Congressman who introduced the legislation advocating for the formation of the Point Reyes National Seashore, thus saving us from freeways and condos”. (Dave Cook Pt. Reyes Light, 8/31/2017)

Clem Miller died in a plane crash in 1962; and was the subject of the movie “Rebels with a Cause

The Point Reyes Environmental Education Center is named for him.