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Thursday, May 17, 2012

Big Trees Station

The History of Big Trees Station: Big Trees is probably the best documented station outside of the primary town and city stations along the South Pacific Coast Sunset Route during the 1876 to 1959 period. The very name Big Trees brought tourists flocking to the San Lorenzo Valley from before the train first operated in the 1800s all the way to beyond the closure of the Mountain Route in 1939. Even today, the location of Big Trees, though no longer a railroad stop on any line, brings tourists from Santa Cruz via the Big Trees & Pacific Railroad tourist train operated by Roaring Camp Railroads. Big Trees Park today is known as Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park, but it has only been known by that name since 1954.

A portion of the Big Trees' Pioneer Town located in the clearing beside the tracks
President Theodore Roosevelt's train at Big Trees Station
Naming the park after Henry Cowell was a bit of an afterthought. The famous Big Trees Park was not owned or operated by Henry, but by another local landowner, Joseph Welch. Welch purchased the site that became Big Trees Park in 1867. He developed the station alongside a hotel, dance pavilion, dining hall, and cabins. Today, all that remains of this little plaza is about half-way along the Redwood Loop, where the trail comes close to the tracks. Celebrities of all types, including two presidents and numerous governors, visited the park throughout its history. Henry Cowell, meanwhile, began purchasing the rest of Rancho Cañada del Rincon en el Rio San Lorenzo, eventually acquiring land that stretched from Pogonip (UCSC) to Fall Creek. The majority of the current state park was Cowell's land, but the resort portion was Welch's. Welch's family sought buyers for the property in the early 1900s and many residents wished for the park to become public lands. This was finally achieved in 1930 when Santa Cruz County purchased the park. When the last surviving Cowell, Samuel, was dying in 1954, he arranged for his own expansive lands to be merged with Big Trees County park to form a new state park, which remains to this day.

Big Trees Club House beside station. Train parked on tracks behind building.

Thus, the history of Big Trees Station specifically references the Big Trees Park of Joseph Welch and his children. The railroad first passed through Big Trees Park in 1875 via the Santa Cruz & Felton Railroad, which ran from Gharkey's Wharf in Santa Cruz (near the site of the current Municipal Wharf) to Felton. This route was taken over by the South Pacific Coast Railroad in 1879, which was in turn taken over by the Southern Pacific Railroad in 1887. The first station at Big Trees was established in 1879 with the permission and through the suggestion of Joseph Welch. The station remained in operation as a part of the Southern Pacific line until the Suntan Special ended its sunday runs in 1959.

The station itself was a small little booth with a ticket counter. It changed little through the years and remained immediately to the right of the tracks, when heading from San Francisco. The 1899 Station Book notes that the station was 74 miles south of San Francisco and lacked most amenities. This makes sense since it was immediately beside the hotel and resort complex, which would have all anything a tourist would require. The station did, however, have a siding that ran the entire length of the tracks. The left picture shows the siding in later years (circa 1920s) while the right photograph shows the track in the late 1890s when it was still narrow gauge. When the line went broad gauge in 1907 after the earthquake, the siding was extended. The siding was a B-grade freight siding but was probably not used for much freight since Big Trees was above all a resort designation. Trains would probably stop to pass one-another at Big Trees or, more likely, stop for extended periods of time to pick up tourists. With Felton Depot less than a mile north, any freight loading and unloading, as well as train turning, could be done there.

The images at top also show a boardwalk that was built along the tracks at some point in the early 1900s, probably after broad-guaging. The walk served to allow passengers a longer clean area to embark and disembark from the trains. With the increased popularity of the site throughout the early 1900s, efficient passenger service for well-to-do tourists was a must.

Unfortunately, like so many things along the South Pacific Coast Sunset Route, Big Trees Station was not destined to survive. As a park, it has faired magnificently through the years. Indeed, much of the damage done by Welch and his many thousands of tourists have been undone. The cottage city, hotel, dancing pavilion, dining hall, and, sadly, the station are all gone now, with the forest retaking those areas not maintained as clearings. The small ticket booth shut down in May 1939, though rail access to Big Trees continued until 1959 when the Suntan Special ceased operating. The site of the station itself, as visible in the image at right, is pretty well gone. The siding tracks were removed at an unknown time, but probably after the state took control of the park. The park's days as a tourist stop along the line continued through the 1950s, but it is unknown whether the station house or any of the buildings remained in use after the Welchs sold the property in 1930. Today, riders of the Big Trees & Pacific Railroad pass the site of Big Trees Station without any real idea of the high level of tourist activity once present there. Today, train-riders visit Roaring Camp, a narrow-gauge amusement park, but that was not always the destination. Sometime between 1959 and 1985, Big Trees withered away into memory and became a mostly-untamed forest again. Tourists still walk the trails, but from other entrances more recently opened.

Small tokens of the past still survive. Foundations of some of the old buildings can be seen on the Redwood Loop's halfway clearing near the tracks. Two culverts still flush water under the tracks on rainy days with the date "1912" printed proudly atop them. Similar culverts can be observed all along the Mountain Route, including in areas that no longer support tracks. Yet nothing else of Big Trees Station survives save one set of broad-guage tracks which still takes tourists down to Santa Cruz in the summer.


  1. thanks! Great read

  2. The black and white photo of the narrow-gauge heading northward past the ticket booth, if one uses a larger copy of the photograph found online (or has a monitor that will enlarge the above photo sufficiently), shows a road at the far end of the platform. The Big Trees Hotel would be on that road, and above track level. Maybe I'm seeing it wrong, but the road looks to be descending from some hill, possibly crossing the tracks, using a cut on the east side to circle about and meet the tracks that form the siding.

    1. I don't see what you see, Grant. I've got the photo at the larger resolution and I don't see a road at the far end. This was the original station booth, built for the Welch Grove before the Hopkins Big Trees was built and the station relocated further south. The stairs down to the hotel clearing is directly behind the booth, but there's no road that I see and I wouldn't know where any road would be coming from at that location. The Big Trees Hotel was below the booth to the left.

    2. Now there is a better identical image online that crops the tall trees and shows a little more detail (you probably are already looking at it), and we are speaking of the "about 1890" photo from the San Francisco Maritime Museum; I'm suggesting that directly behind that last pole at the end of the platform, a road, fenced on both sides.

      Also, the "Down the Track" image - by Frank B. Rodolph, and currently on the Big Trees Landing page - shows the undulating terrain and possibly a pipe to carry water from a stream-fed holding tank down to the hotel - a gravity system for their needs.

      The 1932 map on the 'curiosity' page shows a road, and that the hotel was north of any other buildings while being rather close to the tracks.

  3. The 1931 Santa Cruz County map shows a straight line dividing the Santa Cruz County Big Trees property from the Henry Cowell Lime and Cement Company property. By 1932 there is a 2.469 acre area, purchased by Arthur Brisbane, directly across the tracks (east side) from the park. Did the county sell this piece, and what use could it have for an individual? Road access to this spot would be difficult to almost impossible. Who was Arthur Brisbane, and what were his plans?