We will start our new blog series titled, “The Petalumans of Yesteryear” with  one of Petaluma’s earliest outstanding citizens: Capt. Thomas Baylis. The texts of these blogs were written and posted several years ago on one of our community’s first website, by PetalumaNet volunteers. (They were not written by this blogger; just copied and pasted on this site.)

“Thomas Fulsher Baylis was one of the de facto founders of Petaluma. In the first two decades of its existence he became a prominent businessman and civic leader. His success was especially admirable given his somewhat humble beginnings.

Tom was born in 1823 in Dublin, Ireland. His father was in the British Army attached to the 17th Royal Infantry. When he was still a boy the family immigrated to Australia, where Tom grew up and was educated. In his youth he became a merchant seaman. In 1847, the year before gold was discovered at Sutter’s Mill, he came to live in California.

The California gold rush and the resulting explosion in San Francisco’s population indirectly created Petaluma. To feed the city’s throngs, market hunters came to Sonoma County to bag deer, elk, ducks, geese, quail and even a few Mexican long-horned cattle. Petaluma Creek was the natural highway for bringing supplies to the hunters and transporting the meat to San Francisco. In January, 1851, Tom Baylis and his partner David Flogdell used their schooner to begin regular trade with the hunters. In October of that year they built a trading post and store on the west bank of the creek, a short distance north of the current intersection of Petaluma Blvd. and Western Ave. This was one of the first permanent buildings in the new town. In the following year they built a hotel, the Pioneer, attached to the south side of the store.

Tom and Dave’s business prospered. However, Dave died in 1856. At about the same time, Tom’s wife drowned in the creek, apparently while feverish and delirious, leaving three children. Shortly thereafter, Tom married Dave’s widow Honoria.
As time went on, Tom acquired a succession of schooners and then steamers, providing service to San Francisco, Sacramento and Stockton. In 1859 his side-wheel steamer Rambler supplied needed competition on the San Francisco run, thereby helping to reduce the fare to a fraction of its previous level. Later Tom was captain of the stern-wheeler Relief. The vigor of the shipping business led Tom to build three warehouses in Petaluma. (A stone wall from one of these still exists as part of the Great Mill complex north of B St.)

In addition to his business success, Tom was also active in civic affairs. He was a charter member of the fire brigade, organized in June, 1857. In November of that year he and a friend formed the first Hook-and-ladder Company, with 14 members. Tom built the firehouse on his own property. In 1863 he was elected chief engineer of the fire department.

In 1859, Tom served a one-year term on the Petaluma Board of Trustees, a city council. He was Grand Officer of the Odd Fellows Lodge. He was active in local militia units, the Petaluma Guards and the Emmett Rifles. In January, 1867, he helped organize the first public library and donated 2000 books, for which effort he was elected first president of the Library Association.

In early September, 1867, Tom developed a respiratory illness. After a week his condition suddenly worsened, and on September 10 he died of “congestion of the lungs.” His funeral was the largest seen up to that time in Petaluma – stores closed, flags were lowered to half-mast, bells tolled, and quiet pervaded the streets. The funeral procession featured the Odd Fellows, militia units, the fire department, and was led by the Petaluma Band playing a solemn dirge. He was buried in the Oak Hills cemetery. Some decades later this disorderly graveyard was to be closed and the bodies moved. But neither of his wives’ families would pay for the move, so the Odd Fellows lodge covered the expense, and had Captain Baylis buried in their plot in Cypress Hills cemetery, where he remains to this day.”

Stay tuned for more Petalumans of Yesteryear.