From Hwy 101, it’s hard to see Petaluma’s hundreds of well-maintained Victorian homes, its historical downtown (which is on the National Register of Historic Places), or the beauty of its riverfront.
Those who take time to explore Petaluma will be pleasantly surprised and will discover that all its treasures cannot be unearthed in only a day or two.
One of California’s oldest cities, Petaluma sprang from gold camps and later became a bustling river town from which manufactured goods were shipped south. Prior to this, Petaluma was the site of General Vallejo’s rancho, the Old Adobe, which was built in the 1830s. It is California’s largest adobe, and is now a state park open to visitors.
With the surge of gold miners to California, the Petaluma River became a major source of wild game to supply a growing population. In 1851, hunters set up camp at what is now Petaluma, and soon wild game was the main export from the area.
The city was founded in 1852 and chartered in 1858, becoming a thriving shipping and manufacturing center. For 98 years, the waterway contributed to Petaluma’s commercial success, making it at one time the ninth largest municipality and the third busiest inland port in California. Once the transport for miners and gold from Sacramento to San Francisco, relics of the two most remembered paddle-wheelers, the steamers “Gold” and “Petaluma” are displayed in the Petaluma Historical Library and Museum.
From the 1880s through the 1940s, Petaluma became famous as a poultry town and was known as the “World’s Egg Basket.” Petaluma was home to the world’s only Chicken Pharmacy (as featured in National Geographic and Ripley’s Believe It or Not). Great wealth was accrued during this period and is still evident in commercial buildings and homes from that time. By the late 1940s, high costs forced thousands of chicken farms into the hands of a few large producers. In the 1950s, dairy farming and the charm of country living made Petaluma what it is today. Dairy is still a principal industry, along with a variety of specialty agricultural products, high tech industries including telecommunications and tourism.
The Petaluma River is the heart of the city. The historic downtown flanks the river and lends itself to the authentic Victorian charm of the city. To the east are the city’s newer neighborhoods and shopping centers. Surrounding the city, dairy ranches and hayfields provide the much-appreciated open space, which rises to hills on both sides of the valley. Today you can take a stand up paddle trip from the Sheraton’s waterfront to downtown Petaluma (or further upriver if you prefer). For more info call Petaluma Stand Up Paddle at www.petalumasup.com.
A major local attraction is the Helen Putnam Regional Park on Chileno Valley Road, which offers scenic views, seasonal fishing, hiking and horseback trails. Petaluma also has seven city parks, so a good spot for a picnic or a barbecue is never far away.
Speaking of food, that is another of Petaluma’s hidden charms. The city has an almost unbelievable number of excellent restaurants that feature just about any cuisine imaginable.
After sating one’s appetite, a brief walk to admire Petaluma’s historic buildings or waterfront might be in order. During the 1880s Petaluma underwent a building boom that resulted in a variety of ornate Victorian office and commercial buildings, including several iron front buildings. A walking tour brochure is available at the Petaluma Visitors Center that highlights significant aspects of these homes.
McNear’s Mystic Theatre is described by many as the North Bay’s Premier Music Venue. Built in 1911, The Mystic Theatre originally was host to live Vaudeville entertainment and in 1992 was renovated to accommodate live music performances for up to 550 guests. There is a full bar and restaurant access making McNear’s Mystic Theatre first choice for a great night out. The McNear Building, home of McNear’s Saloon & Dining House and McNear’s Mystic Theatre is the legacy of the McNear family—a father and son team that towered over Petaluma for almost a century. Today this historic venue attracts big name performers, including Eddie Money, Billie Bob Thornton, New Riders of the Purple Sage, Leon Redbone, The Meat Puppets, Johnny Winter, Blues Traveler, Robert Cray Band, Marshall Tucker Band, Average White Band, Jefferson Starship and Jerry Jeff Walker. Check out who is playing now by calling 707.765.2121or going to mystictheatre.com.
Antique collectors will keep busy in Petaluma. The town has more than 30 antique shops, several with multiple dealers. Another intriguing stop is the Petaluma Historical Library and Museum. Located in the Carnegie Library building at 20 Fourth St., the building was constructed of local robbers and stone and completed in 1906. The library and museum have displays that focus on early Petaluma life, and feature a stained glass dome that is one of the only freestanding domes in the state. The Petaluma Visitors Center is located at 210 Lakeville St., Petaluma.
Annual events include Butter & Egg Days Parade and Festival Spring Antique Faire; the annual Salute to American Graffiti; Art & Garden Festival; Rivertown Revival Music Festival; Taste of Petaluma in August and Petaluma River Craft Beer Festival in September.
This historic town is ready for the 21st century: the entire downtown area is wired for free wifi! Save those 4G minutes and jump on their network. For more information, call(707)769-0429. •visitpetaluma.com •petalumadowntown.com •petalumachamber.com