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Friday, March 1, 2019

Curiosities: Huckleberry Island and the Brookdale Club

Brookdale may be famous for its lodge, but the settlement hosted several resorts and subdivisions over the years. The area around Siesta became East Brookdale, the area to the north of town—beyond the bend in the river—was North Brookdale, and the area from the railroad station westward was just plain old Brookdale. But there were still two other important areas that cannot be overlooked.

The proto-Brookdale Club holding an event under the San Lorenzo River bridge at Brookdale, c. 1905.
Huckleberry Island
In the July 14, 1968 issue of the Santa Cruz Sentinel, local historian and staff writer Margaret Koch provided a thorough history of this location that requires little elaboration (though some updating):

An Island That's Not...
"Huckleberry Island, up at Brookdale, is not a true island. It is surrounded by water only on three sides. But huckleberries grow there in the green and gold light under a canopy of trees. Grandfather-size redwoods lift their arms to the sky. There are deer and birds, beauty and peace and the soothing sound of water. Above all, Huckleberry Island is a state of mind.

"And to be absolutely accurate, there is one time of year, winter, when a certain spring is flowing, that Huckleberry Island becomes a true island. This information comes from Herman Irwin who came to Brookdale from San Francisco in 1903. His property bounds the island on its north side where the peripatetic spring ebbs and flows. 'No one knows who named the island,' he said. Mr. Irwin may not know that, but he has gathered other information over the years, because the island is the sort of place that excites curiosities. Its story also is woven inextricably into that of Brookdale, where it is located."
In the Early Days
"The island was owned by the pioneer Grover Mill interests in the 1870s, then by Santa Clara Valley [Mill &] Lumber Company, the McKoy and Duffey Company, and finally was cut over by [Irving Thomas] Bloom Mill. Most of the virgin redwoods around Brookdale were logged out. The lumber mill stood just back of the present Brookdale Lodge dining room. And in those days, Brookdale was known as Reed's Spur.

"Those early-day loggers looked at the island redwoods with dollar signs in both eyes. But they had to leave them standing: it was impossible to get logs of that size across the San Lorenzo River. And so, by the grace of God and inadequate early-day logging equipment, the patriarch trees were saved. 

"The great natural beauty of the Brookdale and Huckleberry Island was recognized by Judge John H. Logan of loganberry fame. What was the judge doing up there? Who knows...perhaps investigating the huckleberry crop. He had a green thumb and a lifelong interest in berries. The judge later bought out Grover's interests and established a small hotel and furniture factory at Brookdale...."

They Swam
"'On June 1, the train would roll into Brookdale loaded with kids and dogs. There were 700 families down here all summer—they came from the San Francisco and Oakland bay areas,' [Irwin] recalled. These early vacationers weren't long in discovering the island with its secluded river beauty. It was purchased by a Dr. Hunkin from San Francisco who built a summer home there. First house on the island, it is still owned [as of 1968] by his daughter, Meva Hunkin, according to Irwin.


Dr. Schnoor riding his 1923 Ford Model T across the Huckleberry Island bridge. [Santa Cruz Sentinel]
"Senator Arthur Breed came to the island about the same time and bought a large hunk of it in order to get the famed redwood grove. He also built a large summer home—some believe it was built before Dr. Hunkin's home. Today the Breed home is owned and cherished by Dr. and Mrs. Thomas G. Schnoor...."

They Built Homes
"Senator Breed's enthusiasm for the mountain retreat attracted prominent friends such as the H. C. Capwells of Oakland, the Bancrofts of UC Bancroft Library fame, and Dr. Warren Wakefield, first physician to use scopalimine or 'twilight sleep' for women in childbirth. These people all came to visit, then returned to buy summer home sites on Huckleberry Island. 'The Island' became a whole new way of summer life for those city dwellers. Eventually, 14 homes were built. With the passing of the years, the turning of auto wheels, and changes in family vacation patterns, many of the senior settlers sold out.

A Magic Place
"The second wave of island settlers is now in command. Many live there all year 'round. They join forces occasionally for projects like replacing the worn-out bridge after a power company truck fell through it in 1965. (The bridge has been replaced three times since 1903.) But mostly they just enjoy island living...its privacy, beauty, and the charm of old houses."

1909 county subdivision map for Huckleberry Island. [San Lorenzo Valley Museum]
The relationship between Huckleberry Island and the railroad is somewhat complex. The original San Lorenzo Valley Flume must have passed directly over the island, putting into question Irwin's claims that it was not logged over. Yes, at least one substantial old growth grove survives, but there are no other virgin redwoods on the island, suggesting they were cut prior to settlement. When the Felton & Pescadero Railroad was installed around late 1884, ultimately replacing the flume, it cut through the northeastern strip of land that binds the "island" to the "mainland." Irwin's statements about a spring may be true, but it was actually the railroad that provided the fourth side of Huckleberry Island during these years. It is unclear whether any trains stopped on what was initially called "Island Park." The strip of land is short and bookended by bridges over the San Lorenzo River, but it seems likely. There was no official stop for the railroad there, but the wealthy families that lived on the island may have prompted the railroad to occasionally send special excursion trains there, which may also explain why there is still a road to this day that terminates at the railroad right-of-way.

Arthur Breed was the person who purchased 38 acres of the island in 1902, and he filed subdivision papers on April 23, 1903, outlining the seventeen plots that would comprise the subdivision (a number of these parcels were almost immediately merged together). By 1909, a subdivision map for the island note as residents Luella Hesseman, Sarah E. Bancroft, Arthur Breed, H. C. Capwell, Mary G. Adams, Dr. Warren F. B. Wakefield, Dr. S. J. Hunkin, and Josephine Capwell, with the Breed and Bancroft families owning the old growth redwood grove at the center of the island. These parcels also extended across the river in many cases in order to maximize swimming and fishing access. The steepness of the land between the river and the county road to the southwest made the actual land across the river largely unusable. Breed added a dance pavilion and gazebo to the northeast of the redwood grove, and in 1926 a club house was added using funds gathered by island residents.

As Koch stated in 1968, most of the original families have long since sold their properties, but a few original families do still own properties on Huckleberry Island and access to the island remains restricted to residents and their guests. The 1965 bridge still crosses the river from the end of Pacific Street and a sign flanks it on either side notifying the island's private status. About half of the buildings on the island are still original, albeit in many cases highly upgraded and modified. Thirty years after the removal of the railroad line in 1934, an additional home was built upon former railroad land at the northeast corner of the island.

The Brookdale Club 
Like Huckleberry Island, the area north of the railroad tracks at Brookdale Station to the San Lorenzo River remained undeveloped for the first three decades that the railroad operated through the area. There was logic to this: it was a very narrow strip of land, much of which was actually within the Felton & Pescadero Railroad's right-of-way. That being said, it was prime waterfront property and hosted a significant beach along a broad stretch of the river, where the water slowed as it curved on its southward journey. Vacationers to Brookdale almost immediately flocked to this beach and the area beneath the railroad bridge to wade into the water to swim and fish from small rowboats.

The Brookdale Club came into unofficial existence nearly twenty years before it was incorporated. Indeed, as early as 1905, H. C. Capwell used his home on Huckleberry Island to host events and galas in the manner of a social club for local Brookdale residents. The merger of social engagements with summer vacationing was a natural fit and plans were put forward around 1916 to formally incorporate an organization with this goal. On August 5, 1920—after the end of World War I—the society was formed, although it was not incorporated for another two years. The original directors were Josephine Edwards Capwell, Lulu Dubbs Badt, Vivienne N. Phillips, Harriet L. Cowell, and Hallie Hyde Irwin, all female Brookdale residents or property owners with an interest in keeping Brookdale a high-class settlement.

Property survey map showing the Brookdale Club straddling the river beside Brookdale station. [George Pepper]
Gathering funds from local residents around the entire area, the club purchased the tract of land along the river in 1921. For the first half of the decade, the club leased the Judkins Memorial Hall for use as their clubhouse, ultimately buying it outright in 1926. The organization also leased some of the right-of-way from the Southern Pacific Railroad, which they later purchased once the land reverted to the Logan family in the mid-1930s.

The club catered almost exclusively to Brookdale residents, although an annual membership was still required to use facilities on the waterfront. Membership never exceeded 100 members per year, a technique that limited the amount of people using its facilities at any one time. In addition to seasonal beach access, the club put on dances, musical events, parties, and monthly social gatherings. Occasional events that allowed guests—basically a requirement once more people began moving to Brookdale—expanded awareness of the club. Unfortunately, as repair and upkeep costs increased in the later half of the twentieth century, interest in the social club declined. The clubhouse was sold in September 1995 as a private home and the Brookdale Club was disbanded. The clubhouse has since been demolished.

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