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Sunday, August 18, 2013

Big Trees Landing Picnic Stop

Diagram of the likely location of Big Trees Landing in relation to the
overall layout of the Henry Cowell and Welch Grove area.
(Map courtesy Google Maps)
The Santa Cruz & Felton Railroad was never intended to be a passenger train during its brief five years of independent existence before being purchased by the South Pacific Coast in 1880. Yet in that brief five year period, it certainly was popular among well-connected locals and their friends, primarily as a means to reaching Henry Cowell's Big Trees Resort one mile south of (Old) Felton. A platform appears to have been built in 1876 on the west bank of the San Lorenzo River behind the Eben Bennett Toll House. It was named by the railroad Big Trees Landing, though it was also often referred to as Big Trees Station, a name shared by its successor on the opposite side of the river.

Possible image of the 1876 Big Trees Landing, falsely dated to 1871,
which would predate the SC&F railroad by four years.
(Courtesy J. Paul Getty Museum*)
Numerous references to the original Big Trees Station appear in Frowler Pope's diary as transcribed by Bruce MacGregor. On April 24, 1876, he wrote "Run Santa Cruz [emphasize mine; regarding one of the two steam engines] all day. Tucker Fireman. Made 2 trips to Felton. Cap. Garratt went up first trip. He is having a platform built at the Big Trees landing. Carpenters working at it today." By June 22 of that year, the station was in regular use with locals gathering up at the site with their out-of-town friends, hitching a ride on the Felton or Santa Cruz from the city. By August 26, the station had become quite popular. A Santa Cruz Sentinel article reads, "It is quite the fashion now for small parties to come up from Santa Cruz each day on cars, bring their lunch along, stop at a station in the woods, and walk from thence to the Big Trees, about a half mile distant." This foot bridge that connected the station to the Welch Big Trees Grove on the opposite bank of the river still exists in a fashion. It is a seasonal bridge installed just beside the trestle during the summers, though, of course, the trestle did not exist in 1876. It has long been popular for people to cross the river near this wide, calm swimming hole and it has apparently been in use since the beginning of rail travel to Felton.

The existence of a picnic stop on the west bank of the San Lorenzo River along an otherwise freight-only route also suggests the existence of a siding at the site to park the tourist cars while timber-laden freight trains head down the canyon. The image above, assuming it is of the correct station, suggests that such a siding existed on the western edge of the station. It was very short—probably only long enough to hold the short shay engine and two or three narrow-gauged passenger cars—but it was effectual to protect the train from southward bound haulers. The platform, therefore, was on the eastern side facing the pathway to the river. If the image above is correct, it was a fairly narrow area but the platform was deep enough the protect the vacationers and had benches crafted into the railing. The railroad ties are off odd widths, which was common for the cheaply and hastily made SC&F RR. The image below shows the approach to the above station and the ties appear to be more standard in width, albeit still narrow-gauged.  A pipe or narrow flume also passes overhead immediately before arriving at the station.

"Down the Track", image of the right-of-way approaching the station in the
image above, though the same mystery surrounds if this is Big Trees Landing
or the latter Big Trees Station on the opposite side of the river.
(Courtesy UC Berkeley, Bancroft Library†)
The eventual fate of the station is not entirely understood. When the South Pacific Coast plowed through the Santa Cruz Mountains and reached Felton, it did so on the east bank and built a trestle over the San Lorenzo River just south of the Welch Grove. The joining place of the original SC&F tracks and the new tracks was at a site called Felton Junction, just south of this trestle. Once direct access to the Welch Grove was available via a new platform built there in 1880, it seems likely that the station on the west bank, which required heavy walking and a pedestrian bridge, shut down. Yet images from the 1930s show an entrance to Henry Cowell still beside the Toll House, begging the question: "Did the Cowell family retain a picnic stop on the west side of the river?" If so, it certainly shut down when the railroad pulled its tracks to Old Felton in 1926. It may well have been retained as a sort of corporate picnic stop in an area that even today is known for its camping and RV space. On the other hand, it may have closed down soon after 1880 when tourists preferred the more direct route. Further research into the matter will have to be performed before a solid answer is arrived at.

* William Henry Jackson, photographer (American, 1843 - 1942),  Big Tree Station, Santa Cruz, about 1871; Albumen silver; image: 18.6 x 11.1 cm (7 5/16 x 4 3/8 in.), mount: 20.3 x 12.7 cm (8 x 5 in.) [The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles]
† Frank B. Rodolph Photograph Collection, "Down the Track" Big Tree Station, Santa Cruz County; Identifier 15; Album 9 : BANC PIC 1905.17154-PIC [U.C. Berkeley, Bancroft Library]


  1. Looks too much like Big Trees Station over on the east side; the twin trees on the right as well as that single tree that has an arc, are unique and identifiable. The patches of sun look familiar as well.

  2. I think that Big Trees Landing was a grade crossing where a local road branched from the county road (Highway 9) and traveled to the river bank, through the river and up the east bank to the three buildings that were dubbed the 'Pioneer Town'. The C.W.J.Johnson (1833-1903) photo of this group of buildings (two boarding houses and something labeled the 'Parlor') dates these structures probably to the 1880s, but they were probably built in the mid-1870s, or before any plans to run the railroad across the river. The pedestrian suspension bridge could date from the 1870s too.

    If no photos of the Big Trees Landing are available, and it seems to have been only a platform, then the suspension bridge and the C.W.J.Johnson photo might fill the gap; they all belong to the pre-railroad package that was Big Trees.

    1. Grant, I have a slightly more detailed version of this early picnic stop in my book. I basically agree with you and that's why I placed the station at the end of Big Trees Road, which used to have a vehicle (horse and buggy, then later car) crossing beside where the current seasonal pedestrian bridge is installed each year. The pioneer town at Big Trees of which you speak, though, is not a historic entity. It was created for a silent movie in the early 1920s. The buildings were left on site for about 40 years before the state park removed them due to safety concerns and a lack of historical relevance. The pedestrian bridge definitely dates to as early as the 1870s, though, and I've seen photos of it from around 1880.

    2. While Big Trees was used by the film industry, I see 'Pioneer Town' in photos that easily put its existence at 1888 and most likely earlier.

      "85. Gen. Fremont, Wife and Daughter" (dated 1888?) by photographer A.Y.Delotte (the photo is quickly found online). General John Charles Fremont (1813-1890) revisited the tree that was named after him, and the 'pioneer town' can be seen in the background (if in doubt, there are other photos of the Gen'l Fremont Tree that show more of the structures).

      "B 1719 Big Trees, Felton, Santa Cruz Co." (subject: "The Giant" tree, and the structures are easily seen) by the photographer Isaiah West Taber (1830-1912). Taber retired from photography in 1906, but had concentrated his efforts on California from 1882 to 1888 (the Shady Gulch photo of 1884 is numbered later than this photo: #1884 - wait, did that number determine the date??).

      "#23" by Charles Wallace Jacob Johnson (1833-1903) shows the town with a man sitting and reading a paper. This photo has yet to be dated. There is a Tiff file (90mb) for download from Calisphere that gives much more detail than the small JPeg. Some details of interest:
      -an extended platform (for business).
      -The word skinner followed by some unreadable markings painted on the railing in the foreground.
      -wagon wheel tracks leading to the spot where the man sits; they look like they come from a short wagon probably used to haul freight (possibly pre-railroad east bank activity).
      -Eucalyptus leaves on path.
      -Paint peeling off the walls and moss beginning to grow.
      -Side walls and roof shingles the same on all three structures.
      -Skinner: wouldn't this be a very dirty business with flies and a worker with less leisure than seen here?
      -the ground slopes away quicker than in more recent photos (maybe a road to a river crossing).
      -old newspaper that uses a tri-fold.

      I'm still trying to have the 'pioneer town' belong to the 1870s, maybe the 1860s. It seems like skinners working in a remote area might be from the distant past. Anyway, I'm happy that this town no longer seems like a fake movie set, and maybe it even had a name.

    3. Grant. You are correct on all points and I will be writing a new article on the topic of the pioneer town in the coming weeks. The confusing history of this little tourist town will finally be resolved (one hopes).

    4. Looking closer at the C.W.J.Johnson "23" photo, the railing reads like a sentence, maybe "SKINNERS PANTS FIT YOU LIKE PA-" as it runs off the edge of the photo. So it could be a tailor instead of the occupation of skinner, which makes some sense.

      I made observations in the above post because I would like to establish the scene as one from the 1880s, after which the peeling paint would indicate actual construction to be a few years earlier. I imagine 1867-1879, or after Joseph Welch bought the property and before the South Pacific Coast changed the features of the whole area.

      More observations:
      -Plumbing, and an outdoor faucet.
      -No overhead wire, and no outdoor lighting.
      -Roughly milled lumber in some of the construction.
      -The Parlor had fancy paint, announcing its social purpose to people that were some distance away.
      -Building on the right is a "Dining Room"
      -Use of periods after building names
      -Only a couple of wagons per day on the road
      -Buildings facing (south) into the sun - for our own mapping purpose
      -The man is very clean in appearance, and wears boots that lace-up and have a rounded toe. Shirt, jacket, unknown type of hat.
      -High walkways built from planks, no canopy, flat front architecture.
      -Wagon wheel tracks lead through the area (or maybe around a grouping of trees).

      Whoever was responsible for building the suspension bridge, may have built these structures. And like you said - a tourist town, or maybe just a bunch of rooms that Joseph Welch had nailed together. The town's name, if Welch was involved, probably "Big Trees".

  3. The 1931 and 1932 county maps show the tracks still remained on the west side. Maybe a lazy mapmaker, a lazy railroad, or one that wished to see new customers move into the area.

    1. I assume you meant to post on the Ocean Shore article. There are 1931 aerial photos of the West Side that show that the right-of-way was still intact (and overgrown) until just west of Bay Street (the bridge over the tracks had been removed by then and replaced with a fill). The road has been paved near the Circles, though, so all trace of the route is gone there. Delaware Avenue barely exists beyond the circles, however, so the right-of-way is once again visible.

    2. Nope, 'old' Felton. The county maps are available at the UCSC digital library, and they show no removal of the tracks as of 1932, and maybe past that date. It might be lazy mapmaking, or some post-abandonment maneuvering.

    3. Oh, then yes, I know. The tracks on the west side of the San Lorenzo River were removed in 1908 between Felton Junction and Quik Stop. A new railroad bridge was installed beside the covered bridge and crossed over behind New Leaf, meandering to the road grade near the Presbyterian Church, at which point it split and turned up Hihn Street to the Holmes kilns up there. Those remained in place until 1938, I believe.

    4. I'll send the maps(x2) tomorrow, as I'm not very good with the small details of Quik Stop and the church. You'll need the maps for something else that I plan to say about the east side, too.

    5. The two county maps (from UCSC Digital Library - SC County 1931 and 1932, page 13 - for those who might be reading this) show the entire branch intact, but the right-of-way has been removed from under it. The mapmaker must have felt an obligation to include the physical tracks even though they were out of use. And just like the current Ocean Shore article recounts, discontinuing rail service is a process that takes time and may even haunt some areas after it's done.

    6. The page to the north (page 12 of both the 1931 and 1932 maps) show the branch as removed from the town. So, the mapmaker may have been starting with outdated information when working on the southern portions.