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North Bay Q&A: About those ’ruins’ in Santa Rosa where Chanate Road meets the Cobblestone neighborhood

A Press Democrat reader asked, “There are ruins from an old home along the access road to Cobblestone, coming up from Chanate in Santa Rosa. What's the history?”|

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A Press Democrat reader asks: “There are ruins from an old home along the access road to Cobblestone, coming up from Chanate in Santa Rosa. What's the history?”

There is indeed something old and relegated to the past alongside the steep entrance to Cobblestone, the hillside neighborhood just north of Chanate Road and next door to the sprawling, Sonoma County-owned, mostly vacated property that includes the former Community Hospital complex.

The remains near Cobblestone appear to consist entirely of a sturdy, old, dual-purpose rock fireplace and a short length of stone wall. The remnants occupy a tiny piece of the historic parcel of land that prior to its purchase by the county about a decade after the Civil War was part of Lewis Murdock’s working farm.

Much history resides on that property, which the Board of Supervisors would dearly love to sell to a developer.

The parcel encompasses more than 71 acres. It features an old county cemetery and the publicly owned hospital buildings in which, from 1876 to 2014, countless babies were born and people ailing with all manner of afflictions were treated. Other buildings housed the county morgue, former juvenile detention centers and the mental-health treatment facility that was long known as Oakcrest.

Perhaps no one in contemporary times has more thoroughly examined and studied the county’s now largely derelict and scarred Chanate spread than Santa Rosa’s Jeremy Nichols. An avid student of history, the 74-year-old retired Silicon Valley manufacturing engineer also happens to chair the board of the nonprofit Bird Rescue Center, which has long occupied an aged county Quonset hut on the south side of Chanate.

Nichols is a good person to ask about the history of ruins along the entrance road leading from Chanate Road to the homes of Cobblestone.

He believes that what the inquiring reader described as the remains of an old home was not, in fact, a residence.

“I don’t think there was ever a house there,” Nichols said. When the County of Sonoma initiated the purchase of the Murdock farm in 1874, he said, the farmhouse and all of the other structures of the farm were located on the other side, the south side, of the 19th century rutted path now called Chanate Road.

The county, over time, built plenty of buildings, an entire campus, on both sides of the road up Chanate hill.

Some examples: In 1876, county officials opened the Hillcrest County Hospital, located south of the road, for ill and impoverished residents. The indigents who found shelter and care there grew most of their own food in adjacent gardens and pens.

A new Sonoma County Hospital was completed in 1937 on the north side of the road. It would evolve into Community Hospital, then into the Sutter Hospital that preceded the new and growing one that stands just north of Santa Rosa, alongside Highway 101 and the Luther Burbank Center for the Arts.

The Oak Knoll Sanitarium, predecessor to Oakcrest and the Norton Behavioral Health Center, went up on the south side of the Chanate campus in 1939. Construction projects extending into the early 1970s expanded the hospital and added structures used as the home of Health Services Administration, juvenile halls, the county morgue and a family-practice center.

Nichols said there was no reason to build a home on a hillside on the northeast fringe of the county property, near what is now Cobblestone. And he knows of no evidence that a house was ever constructed where the old fireplace stands.

But Nichols is aware that a historical account by the county states a building called Chanate Hall was constructed down the hill from what is now the fireplace-and-wall ruins, at or just past the end of World War II. It was a dormitory for students at the School of Nursing at Santa Rosa Junior College.

The fireplace and rock wall that caught the PD reader’s attention would have been a short, pleasant walk up the hill from Chanate Hall.

“There isn’t much written information,” Nichols said. But he concludes that the chimney and wall are what remains of a picnic area “created, in general, for the hospital employees and perhaps more specifically for the women living” … in Chanate Hall.

“Apparently they would go up there and have parties or picnics occasionally,” he said.

Katherine Rinehart, a local historian, shared images from several pages of the 1946 SRJC yearbook dedicated to the School of Nursing. There’s a photo of the two-story, brick Chanate Hall, and one of several nursing students sitting or standing alongside a fireplace identified as “the barbecue pit at the hospital.”

What remains today is the bit of rock wall and a fireplace that stands on a base or pedestal of stones. On one side of the chimney is a traditional space for fuel wood. On the other, a couple of basins for charcoal and barbecue grills.

Leah Ford, a retired registered nurse and SRJC nursing instructor, lived at Chanate Hall while she studied with the School of Nursing’s class of 1956. It’s her understanding that the residence hall was completed in 1945; Sonoma County accounts say it was 1946.

Regardless, Ford, who’s now 85, has fond memories of studying nursing and sharing Chanate Hall with others enrolled in the school’s nursing program. Ford said she and her fellow nursing students did not go very often to the barbecue-picnic spot.

“It was for something special,” she said, “a couple of times a year.”

As she recalls, an outdoor, grilled meal was served up at a welcoming reception for each year’s batch of new resident docs. Maybe, she said, there was an annual summer barbecue, too.

This story is part of our North Bay Q&A series, in which we answer readers’ questions about Sonoma County. Have a question? Visit www.pressdemocrat.com/north-bay-qa/ to let us know what you are curious about.

You can contact Chris Smith at 707-521-5211 and chris.smith@pressdemocrat.com.

Help us choose the next North Bay Q&A story

We want to know what you're curious about in Sonoma County. ​What problems do you want us to investigate? What issues need to be explained?

Whether it's a burning question or something that just piqued your curiosity, share it here. We'll work to dig up the answers and share them with you.

Visit www.pressdemocrat.com/north-bay-qa/ to pose your question and vote on questions submitted by other readers.

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