Friday, October 19, 2018

Picnic Stops: Big Trees Landing

Five years before the South Pacific Coast Railroad skirted the edge of the Welch Big Trees Grove and erected a stop there to support the local nature park, the Santa Cruz & Felton Railroad set up an informal picnic stop across the San Lorenzo River from Big Trees. At its core, the Santa Cruz & Felton Railroad had one explicit purpose: to transport lumber from the flume terminus at Felton to the Railroad Wharf at the Santa Cruz Main Beach. But from the very beginning, the railroad offered informal passenger service between the two points, eventually prompting the railroad to buy two passenger cars to support the influx of seasonal tourists. Big Trees proved to be the most popular stop along the way.

Postcard of the swing bridge beside Big Trees Landing, postmarked May 28, 1907. [Santa Cruz Public Libraries]
Big Trees Hotel, c. 1877, by Romanzo E. Wood.
[Chico State University]
On its inaugural run on October 13, 1875, the Santa Cruz & Felton Railroad ran its first excursion train to Big Trees, which was accessible via a pedestrian bridge installed over the river at the end of Big Trees Road beside Eben Bennett's Toll House on West San Lorenzo Drive (State Route 9). The stop itself was a relatively unremarkable location situated beside George Treat's lumber mill. As an investor in the railroad, Treat likely used the site as well to ship lumber, and it seems possible that a spur was located there, which would have allowed the two trains of the railroad company to pass one another, it necessary, at a convenient location not far from Felton.

Irregular excursion service continued to the informal drop-off for Big Trees for the next four years. In 1876, the railroad with the support of the Odd Fellows erected a platform and picnic area beneath a nearby redwood grove, which could be used for special events and private group outings. Fowler Pope's diary reveals that either this platform or another was built beside the railroad tracks in April of that year to support passenger service to the site. Pope is also the first to refer to the location as Big Trees Landing, undoubtedly an unofficial name adopted by railroad crews. By August, the Santa Cruz Weekly Sentinel reported that "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." The Sentinel estimated that 9,000 visitors visited Big Trees in 1876, mostly via railroad, disembarking at what it named simply Big Trees Station.

The influx of activity at this site prompted Santa Cruz County to erect a ford across the San Lorenzo River beside the pedestrian bridge in 1876, thereby reducing the route to Big Trees from Santa Cruz by three miles. From the summer of 1877, three moonlight excursion runs per month began operating between Santa Cruz and Felton, and John M. Hooper, who operated the Big Trees Resort, expanded his facilities to support the increased demand. By September, Big Trees had become an official flag stop for the railroad, listed on public timetables. In May 1878, the railroad sought to increase business by blocking access to Big Trees via coach. It erected a fence alongside its right-of-way at the bottom of Big Trees Road, forcing non-railroad visitors to take the long road around Felton to get into the park.

The Giant covered with postcards, with two women posing in front, c. 1875, by Romanzo E. Wood.
[Chico State Univeristy]
The popularity of Big Trees led the South Pacific Coast Railroad to trespass in order to reach the park grounds in 1879. Its grading crews graded the right-of-way directly along the perimeter of the Welch property, causing outrage by the Welch family, which feared destruction and damage to its highly profitable redwood trees. But the railroad pushed on through and crossed the river inflicting little permanent damage, eventually joining the Santa Cruz & Felton Railroad at Felton Junction, just south of Big Trees Landing. By so doing, they made the picnic stop redundant since visitors could henceforth ride directly to the grove via the new railroad route. Big Trees Landing disappeared from timetables after November 8, 1879, although railroad tracks continued along this route for another three decades. George Treat continued to ship out lumber from his mill for a few more years, but access to the redwood grove from the west bank of the river over the ford became a thing solely for coaches and automobiles.

Geo-Coordinates & Access Rights:
Approx. 37.0350N, 122.0613W

The location of Big Trees Landing and the Treat mill is now the site of Smithwoods RV Park and Cotillion Gardens (originally Sequoia Gardens). Access to both sites is restricted to guests, although people are free to walk down Old Big Trees Road beside the Toll House Resort. The wooden mounts for the original pedestrian bridge can still be viewed on the west bank of the San Lorenzo River near the trestle, but the ford that for decades ran across the river finally disappeared, probably during the heavy floods of 1955.

Citations & Credits:
  • MacGregor, Bruce A. 
  • Santa Cruz Weekly Sentinel, 1875-1880.
  • Whaley, Derek R. Santa Cruz Trains: Railroads of the Santa Cruz Mountains. Santa Cruz, CA, 2015.


  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.


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