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.
The Coast Miwok Native Americans resided in southern Sonoma County, and Péta Lúuma 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.
There were brothels downtown along Petaluma Boulevard, which used to be the main thoroughfare until U.S. Highway 101 was constructed in the 1950s.
The Sonoma County Bank Building, now the home of the Baker Creek Heirloom Seed Company and the Petaluma Seed Bank, was built in the 1920s.
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. Petaluma is also where Randall Smith founded Mesa/Boogie (also known as Mesa Engineering), maker of hand-built guitar amplifiers used by such musicians as Carlos Santana and Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones.
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, and berry and vegetable farms.
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 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 area 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 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. The downtown Petaluma Historic Commercial District is on the National Register of Historic Places.
The first official airmail flight took place in 1911, when Fred Wiseman carried a handful of mail from Petaluma to Santa Rosa, including letters from Petaluma postmaster John E. Olmstead and Petaluma's mayor. Wiseman's plane ended up in the National Air and Space Museum.
There was a substantial influx of Jewish residents, starting during WWI. This community formed around shared socialist ideals, as well as religious and cultural ties; this is depicted in the movie A Home on the Range (2002).
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 was re-aligned as a freeway in 1955, 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.
Despite this history of planned development, the Petaluma City Council voted on April 13, 2009, to eliminate the entire planning department and lay off the whole planning staff. Planning Division responsibilities were subsequently contracted out to the consulting firm Metropolitan Planning Group, which re-hired some of the former planning staff and continues to operate planning services for the city.
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 for early stockholders and employees. 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), for several years from a small cottage in the city, and now from a new studio facility two blocks away.