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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.