"Petaluma: Former "Chicken Capital of the World"" Top 5 Page for this destination Petaluma by WulfstanTraveller

Petaluma Travel Guide: 54 reviews and 138 photos

General Information and Early History

The southernmost town in Sonoma County, Petaluma has about 57,000 people, and is in the North Bay region of the San Francisco Bay Area. It is the second-largest city in Sonoma County, behind Santa Rosa. In the 1850s and 1860s, it was the largest town in the region and, incorporated in 1858, it was the first incorporated city in the North Bay after Benicia, in nearby Solano County. By the 1870s, Santa Rosa caught up and the two were about the same size until about 1890, when Santa Rosa began getting steadily larger.

Petaluma is one of the most interesting towns in California, historically and architecturally. It was one of the state's larger cities in the 1850s - 1870s, especially outside the gold-ming areas. Although it didn't mushroom early like the mining towns, it stayed prosperous for years afterwards and thus has kept a larger proportion of old buildings from its heyday.

It grew fast early, then stagnated and after WWII saw little growth while towns around it boomed with suburban sprawl. By comparison, in 1945 Petaluma had close to 10,000 while nearby Novato had about 1,000 people, less then Petaluma's population in 1858. By 1960, however, Novato was bigger than Petaluma. As a result, Petaluma has a relatively large downtown that has a very old-fashioned urban feel about it in a way that is rare for California, especially in towns of this size. Petaluma possesses a rich collection of iron-front buildings and works by gifted architects, including several houses by Julia Morgan, a church by Ernest Coxhead, and numerous residential, governmental, and commercial buildings by local architect Brainerd Jones.

Petaluma's oldest building is the adobe of Mariano Vallejo, who built the large headquarters for his rancho to the east of town in the 1830s. Most of this adobe dating to 1836, the largest Spanish/Mexican-era residential adobe structure in California, still stands.

Recently, Petaluma was used in a number of films. The most famous of these is probably American Graffiti, filmed largely in and around Petaluma (but also a little in nearby San Rafael).

Early River Port

Petaluma is rather unusual among California towns in that it owes its existance not to railroads or natural resources, but river transport. It grew in the 1850s and 1860s due to its location on the Petaluma River since prior to the arrival of trains, waterways were the most efficient methods of transport. It is especially unusual in that the primary river ports, such as Sacramento and Stockton, are in the Central Valley, but the Petaluma River was California's 3rd main waterway for transport and Petaluma is the only town on it. In fact, crucially it is at the furthest navigable point, making it the natural transit point, especially in pre-rail days, between this region, San Francisco, and the Central Valley. Petaluma grew as the break-of-bulk/transit hub for agricultural and other similar goods leaving the region, primarily to supply San Francisco, and for manufactured goods, people, etc., coming into the region.

In fact, the arrival of trains in the 1860s threatened to kill off the town as it diminished Petaluma's regional monopoly on trade while the Donahue rail magnates (as in the Donahue statute on Market St., San Francisco) feuded with Petaluma and attempted to destroy the town with a rival port lower down the river at Lakeville. However, Petaluma was too well-established by then, and its position at the farthest navigable point on the river was still sufficiently advantageous to allow Petaluma to prevail. Donahue gave up and took a couple of his main buildings down to Marin County. Passenger and goods shipment on the Petaluma River, dominated by schows and rear-wheeled paddle-wheelers, continued until about 1950. Nevertheless, the arrival of trains spurred the growth of towns like Santa Rosa, which till then were always in the shadow of Petaluma, but which were better suited to grow with train travel.

This early history and focus on river transport and adds to its unique character. Petaluma still has many signs of an old river port. Buildings along the main street, Petaluma Blvd, have loading areas backing onto the river, as do the old light industrial areas south of downtown along 1st and 2nd Streets. Old railway spurs went though 1st Street and along the loading dock and pier on the river and this line was still in use until about 1992. I remember as a kid eating at a restaurant on the waterfront as trains would slowly rumble past, just beyond arm's reach, causing the whole pier to vibrate and creak under the trains' weight. There are also many of the town's oldest buildings, some old survivors dating back to the 1850s, along the riverfront in the heart of downtown. One can't always tell how old these buildings are from the front, as they have been modified over the years, but the old brick and stone walls, and big, often rusted, iron shutters are still visible in the backs of the buildings.

Poultry Capital

As the site of the creation of the modern poultry incubator, Petaluma also was the home of the modern poultry industry, which has since moved elsewhere. During its heyday as "Chicken Capital of the World" it was for a long time the single largest producer of poultry and eggs in the country and this role was the subject of an article in a National Geographic issue from about 1930 (I forget the exact date). It was also one of the top dairy towns in the entire US, home to two major dairy processors. Petaluma had numerous major feed mills, manufacturers of poultry incubators, poultry hatcheries, and a chicken pharmacy. Some of the agricultural and poultry heritage remains, as there are a number of old hatchery and mill buildings, mostly now used for other purposes, while Petaluma is sitll home to the largest feed mill companies in the region and has a sizeable poultry industry mainly geared toward free-range and organic poultry, filling a niche that is in great demand in this region which tends to favor organic and free-range foods to a greater extent than other areas.

Because of its former power in the poultry world, Petaluma possesses numerous old brick poultry hatcheries and similar buildings. All over town, from downtown and out to the periphery, one can find hatchery buildings still standing. Many now house offices or restaurants.

Pros and Cons
  • Pros:Great architecture & history; near San Francisco
  • Cons:Not many places to stay and not much to "do" other than look around, eat, and shop for antiques
  • In a nutshell:Rich in architecture and history.
  • Intro Updated Jan 25, 2008
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Reviews (33)

Comments (2)

  • May 23, 2009 at 6:54 PM

    I agree with you about Dempsey's in that it's a great restaurant, but wanted to mention that I think the beer (which is award-winning and their own micro-brew) is pretty good. Just my opinion! :)

  • Carmanah's Profile Photo
    Jan 17, 2008 at 8:54 PM

    Great information! I was just eating a soup that had "made in Petaluma CA" on the can so I always like to get a sense of where my food's coming from. Petaluma looks really beautiful. I'll pass through on my upcoming Sonoma visit! :)

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