Located in Petaluma is the Rancho Petaluma Adobe, a National Historic Landmark. It was built beginning in 1836 by General Mariano Guadalupe Vallejo, then Commandant of the San Francisco Presidio. It was the center of a vast 66,000 acre (270-km²) ranch stretching from Petaluma River to Sonoma Creek. The adobe is considered one of the best preserved buildings of its era in Northern California.
Petaluma has a well preserved, historic city center which includes many buildings that survived the 1906 San Francisco earthquake.
As of the census of 2000, there were 54,548 people, 19,932 households, and 14,012 families residing in the city. The population density was 3,953 people per square mile (1,526/km²). There were 20,304 housing units at an average density of 1,471/sq mi (568/km²). The racial makeup of the city was 84.16% White, 1.16% African American, 0.54% Native American, 3.91% Asian, 0.17% Pacific Islander, 6.08% from other races, and 3.98% from two or more races. 14.64% of the population were Hispanic.
There were 19,932 households out of which 36.6% had children under the age of 18 living with them, 55.3% were married couples living together, 10.6% had a female householder with no husband present, and 29.7% were non-families. 22.6% of all households were made up of individuals and 9.1% had someone living alone who was 65 years of age or older. The average household size was 2.70 and the average family size was 3.16. The age distribution is: 26.2% under the age of 18, 7.2% from 18 to 24, 31.5% from 25 to 44, 24.1% from 45 to 64, and 11.0% who were 65 years of age or older. The median age was 37 years. For every 100 females there were 95.6 males. For every 100 females age 18 and over, there were 91.9 males.
The median income for a household in the city was $61,679, and the median income for a family was $71,158 (these figures had risen to $68,949 and $85,513 respectively as of a 2007 estimate). Males had a median income of $50,232 versus $36,413 for females. The per capita income for the city was $27,087. About 3.3% of families and 6.0% of the population were below the poverty line, including 6.2% of those under age 18 and 7.1% of those age 65 or over.
The Coast Miwok Indians resided in southern Sonoma County, and Petaluma was originally the name of a Miwok village east of the Petaluma River. A number of other Coast Miwok villages were also located in and around what is now Petaluma; Wotoki, immediately to the south of the village of Petaluma, on the opposite side of the river, Etem, Likatiut, and Tuchayalin, near downtown Petaluma, and Tulme and Susuli, just north of what are now the city limits of Petaluma.
Pioneered by the Spanish in 1776, the Petaluma area was part of a 66,000 acre (270-km²) Mexican land grant of 1834 by Governor Jose Figueroa to Mariano Guadalupe Vallejo called Rancho Petaluma. In 1836, Vallejo began construction of his Rancho Petaluma Adobe a ranch house in Petaluma, which his family often used as a summer home, while he resided in the neighboring town of Sonoma. Vallejo's influence and Mexican control in the region began to decline after Vallejo's arrest during the Bear Flag Revolt in 1846.
Pioneers flocked into Petaluma from the eastern United States after the discovery of gold in California in 1849. The town's position on the Petaluma River in the heart of productive farmland was critical to its growth during the 19th and early 20th centuries. Sailing scows, such as the scow schooner Alma (1892), and steamers plied the river between Petaluma and San Francisco, carrying agricultural produce and raw materials to the burgeoning city of San Francisco during the California Gold Rush.
Volpi's is an old speakeasy that now operates as a bar and restaurant. There were also brothels, one of which is now Old Chicago Pizza on Petaluma Boulevard North, which used to be the main thoroughfare until US Highway 101 was constructed in the 1950s.
Petaluma soon became known for its grain milling and chicken processing industries, which continue to the present as a smaller fraction of its commerce. At one time, Petaluma was known as the "Egg Capital of the World", sparking such nicknames as "Chickaluma". Petaluma hosted the only known Poultry drugstore and is the place where the egg incubator was invented by Lyman Byce in 1879.
In fact one of the largest historic chicken processing plants still stands in the central area of town; this 1930s brick building is no longer used for the chicken industry, but is being evaluated for preservation and change of use. Even though it is no longer known as the Egg Capital of the World, Petaluma maintains a strong agricultural base today with dairy farms, olive groves, vineyards, berry and vegetable farms. The city is proud to protect its Greenbelt of farmland.
According to the Army Museum at the Presidio, San Francisco, Petaluma was relatively unharmed during the San Francisco earthquake of April 18, 1906, due to significant investment of stable bedrock underlying the region. As one of the few communities in the region left standing after the earthquake, Petaluma was the staging point for most Sonoma County rescue and relief efforts.
Petaluma is today the location of many distinguished, well-preserved pre-1906 buildings and Victorian homes on the western side of the river. The downtown has suffered many river floods over the years and during the Depression commerce declined. A lack of funds prevented the demolition of the old homes and buildings. In the 1960s there was a counter-culture migration out of San Francisco into Marin County and southern Sonoma County, looking for inexpensive housing in a less urban environment. The old Victorian, Queen Anne and Eastlake houses were dusty gems waiting to be discovered and restored. Historic iron-front buildings in the downtown commercial district were also rescued. Traffic and new home development for the most part was rerouted to the east of downtown by the construction of the 101 freeway.
With its large stock of historic buildings, Petaluma has been used as the filming location for numerous movies set in the 1940s, '50s, and '60s (see list of movies below). The historic McNear Building is a common film location.
Petaluma pioneered the time-controlled approach to development. After Highway 101 opened in 1969, residential development permits tripled, from 300 in 1969 to 900 in 1971. Because of the region's soaring population in the sixties, the city enacted the “Petaluma Plan” in 1971. This plan limited the number of building permits to 500 annually for a five year period beginning in 1972. At the same time Petaluma created a redbelt around the town as a boundary for urban expansion for a stated number of years. Similar to Ramapo, New York, a Residential Development Control System was created to distribute the building permits based on a point system conforming to the city's general plan to provide for low and moderate income housing and divide development somewhat equally between east and west and single family and multi-family housing.
The stated objectives of Petaluma's time controlled growth management were to ensure orderly growth; to protect the city's small town character and surrounding green space; to provide a variety of housing choices; and to maintain adequate water supply and sewage treatment facilities.
The controlled development plan attracted national attention in 1975 when the city was taken to court by the Construction Industry Association. The city's restriction was upheld by the 9th Circuit Court in 1975 and the Supreme Court denied a Petition for Writ of Certiorari in 1976. This court ruling still forms the foundation for most local growth management ordinances in California.
In the late 1990s, Petaluma was also known as Telecom Valley due to the telecom startup companies that seemed to multiply from one another, and offer great riches if you were lucky enough to be an early stockholder or employee. One success story was that of the employees of Advanced Fibre Communications (AFC) (now Tellabs), or Cerent, which was purchased by Cisco. Some Cerent employees went on to purchase the Phoenix Theater, a local entertainment venue, which was once an opera house.
Petaluma has been notable in the tech world again recently, due to technology broadcaster Leo Laporte hosting his TWiT.tv podcast network (including a national radio program syndicated by Premiere Radio Networks) from a small cottage in the city.
Petaluma enjoys a mild Mediterranean climate.
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The National Weather Service's cooperative station in Petaluma had a record high temperature of 110 °F (43 °C) on June 2, 1960. The record low temperature of 16 °F (−9 °C) was recorded on November 14, 1916, and December 14, 1932. The wettest year was 1998 with 45.93 inches (1,167 mm) and the dryest year was 1976 with 8.29 inches (211 mm). The wettest month was February 1998 with 19.59 inches (498 mm). The most rainfall in 24 hours was 4.29 inches (109 mm) on December 27, 2004. Although snow is rare in Petaluma, 1.5 inches fell in January 1916.
Petaluma is situated at the northernmost navigable end of the Petaluma River, a tidal estuary that snakes southward to San Pablo Bay. Pollution levels in the river, once considerable, have improved in recent years. A significant amount of the city is in the river's flood plain, which overflows its banks every few years, particularly in the Payran neighborhood.
Principal environmental noise sources are U.S. Route 101, Petaluma Boulevard, Washington Street and other major arteries. The number of residents that live in a zone of noise exposure greater than 60 CNEL is approximately 4,000.
Immediately to the southwest is Helen Putnam Regional Park, accessible from Chileno Valley Road. This park of 216 acres (0.9 km2) has trails for hiking, cycling and horseback riding and is one of two parks named in honor of former mayor Helen Putnam who served from 1965-1979; the other is Putnam Plaza on Petaluma Boulevard. Lying above the city of Petaluma on the northwest flank of Sonoma Mountain is the Fairfield Osborn Preserve, a nature reserve with a diversity of native flora and fauna. Nearby to the southeast is Tolay Lake, the site of prehistoric seasonal settlement by Miwok and Pomo tribes. It is flanked by the unincorporated communities of Penngrove to the north and Lakeville to the south.
Ever since 1973, Petaluma has served as a location for many major films, including:
The U.S. Coast Guard operates the Chief Petty Officer Academy at Training Center Petaluma just outside Petaluma, near Two Rock. The Academy trains senior non-commissioned officers (Chief Petty Officers) for both the U.S. Coast Guard and the U.S. Air Force.
The mayor of Petaluma is Pamela Torliatt, a former City Councilwoman. The vice mayor is Teresa Barrett. The other five council members are David Glass (a former Mayor of Petaluma), Mike Harris, Michael Healy, David Rabbitt, and Tiffany Renée.
In the state legislature Petaluma is located in the 3rd Senate District, represented by Democrat Mark Leno, and in the 6th Assembly District, represented by Democrat Jared Huffman. Federally, Petaluma is located in California's 6th congressional district, represented by Democrat Lynn Woolsey.
There are two comprehensive high schools in Petaluma. They are Petaluma High School and Casa Grande High School. Casa Grande High School has a notable Academic Decathlon team, which has represented Sonoma County for the last 23 years in the state-level competition. There is an annual football game between the two schools' teams known as the "Egg Bowl".
Santa Rosa Junior College has a rapidly growing second campus on the Sonoma Mountain Parkway, on the east side of town. There is also a Roman Catholic high school, St. Vincent de Paul High School. The campus of the unaccredited Institute of Noetic Sciences is also located in Petaluma.
Highway 101 is the main freeway through town. State Route 116 also runs through town as Lakeville Highway. Other major streets include East Washington Street, North and South McDowell Boulevards, and Petaluma Boulevard.
Petaluma held the world arm-wrestling championships from 1952 to 2003. (The championships were moved to Reno, Nevada in 2004 due to a lack of sponsorship; the 2007 finals were held in Bulgaria.) In the comic strip Peanuts, Snoopy aspired to be a champion arm-wrestler (or "wrist-wrestler", as they were then called) and was shown in a series of 1968 strips headed for Petaluma. Alas, Snoopy was disqualified, as he had no thumb.
Petaluma received national attention when 12-year-old Polly Klaas was kidnapped from her home at knifepoint on October 1, 1993 and later raped and murdered by Richard Allen Davis. The community pulled quickly together to publicize the disappearance and to form the Polly Klaas Foundation for missing and exploited children.
Petaluma was the location for an episode of Dateline's "To Catch a Predator" where the authorities arrested 29 men in three days.
The annual summer Sonoma-Marin Fair held in Petaluma plays host to the World's Ugliest Dog Contest.
Petaluma hosts a "Butter and Eggs Day Parade" in April of each year celebrating its heritage as the "Egg Basket to the World" and dairy production.