Friday, July 5, 2019

Curiosities: Big Basin

In the year 1900, California had only had one state park: Yosemite. It was a lush wilderness carved out of the earth by earthquakes and glaciers over millions of years. And it had giant sequoia (sequoiadendron giganteum), the largest trees on earth—thousands of them! But the tallest trees in the world were found elsewhere, and a substantial selection of these coast redwoods (sequoia sempervirens) grew along the remote northern edge of Santa Cruz County in a mountain hollow called Big Basin.

The Animal Tree, named after its large burls, at the California Redwood Park, c. 1905. [Santa Cruz Public Libraries]
For millennia, Cotoni and Quiroste, both Ohlone, Native Americans visited the hidden glen at the headwaters of Waddell Creek to harvest plants and gather food. The area was rich with several species of deer and elk and the Ohlone were not opposed to burning their prey out of the forest when hunting became difficult. Native American activity declined and then disappeared entirely by the mid-nineteenth century as the Spanish brought all of the local Ohlone to Mission Santa Cruz. American interest in the redwoods of the San Lorenzo Valley, south of Big Basin, began as early as the 1840s with early pioneers such as Isaac Graham but boomed as Gold Rush immigrants turned south to settle in Santa Cruz County. The death of Graham in 1863 helped opened the San Lorenzo Valley to settlement.

A tie camp run by Henry Middleton's near Big Basin, c. 1901. Photo by Andrew Hill. [History San Jose]
Within fifteen years, logging and lumber companies appeared up and down the San Lorenzo Valley, with some such as that of the Harmon Brothers mill on Boulder Creek operating precariously close to Big Basin, just across the crest of Ben Lomond Mountain. Henry L. Middleton eventually purchased the majority of the basin with the intention to harvest the old growth redwood timber there once adequate provisions were in place to haul it down the grade.

An exploration party at Big Basin including, from left, Louise C. Jones, Carrie Stevens Walter, J. F. Coope, J. Q. Packard, Andy Baldwin, Charles W. Reed, W. W. Richards, and Roley, c. 1890s. [Santa Cruz Public Libraries]
While few probably thought of Big Basin when the San Lorenzo Valley flume was constructed in 1875, the completion of the Felton & Pescadero Railroad to Boulder Creek in 1885 certainly marked a milestone in the history of Big Basin in two decidedly divergent ways. For the first time, tourists could venture up to Big Basin to enjoy the beautiful redwood groves and the pristine meadows and trickling brooks. As early as 1886, the Moody and Cress livery stable in Boulder Creek and William Marshall Elsom's stable in Ben Lomond would took picnickers and campers up to Big Basin. The railroad itself briefly operated stage service over Saratoga Gap between Boulder Creek and Pescadero, hinting at the possibilities of a railroad line over the same route.

Ladies measuring the diameter of a coast redwood at Big Basin, c. 1905. [Unknown Collection]
But the natural inverse of the close proximity of the railroad to Big Basin was increased interest by Middleton in harvesting his valuable timber atop the mountain. Indeed, Middleton became an important investor in the Santa Clara Valley Mill & Lumber Company, partnering with the James Dougherty in the ownership of the main Boulder Creek general store and helping fund the construction of the Dougherty Extension Railroad—often nicknamed in newspapers the Middleton Railroad—in 1888. The threat of deforestation within Big Basin was mounting and some influential people united to ensure the redwood groves were preserved for future generations.

Warden's Lodge at Big Basin, c. 1928. [Doug Kuntz Photography]
Andrew P. Hill, notorious for being removed from Big Trees in Felton for illegally taking commercial photographs of the trees, visited Big Basin in 1900 with a company of Bay Area businessmen, journalists, and politicians. He helped bring the matter to the attention of the wider public while he and others, such as recent Lieutenant Governor William Thomas Jeter and Josephine Clifford McCracken, organised a preservation society called the Sempervirens Club and gathered sponsors to permanently protect the area. By this time, James Dougherty had died and most of the San Lorenzo Valley was logged out—it was the make or break moment for Middleton. He was a capitalist and wanted to derive a profit from his land, but he also understood the importance Big Basin had come to play in the minds of tourists and conservations. He was willing to bargain and, with the intervention of the Sempervirens Club, he sold the property to the State of California, leading to the creation of the state's second park: California Redwood Park. Middleton, rather appropriately, was designated provisional park warden and donated additional land to house the warden's lodge.

A rugged bridge in California Redwood Park, c. 1925. [Santa Cruz Public Libraries]
The creation of the park was the first and most important step, but the most pressing issue remained access. When it first opened, only one relatively crude road linked the main campground at Big Basin to Boulder Creek. Internally, there were no roads at all. As early as the 1890s, locals speculated that some form of rail transport could be built to Big Basin. By 1905, Southern Pacific was surveying routes to Pescadero Creek from several miles north of Boulder Creek, with plans to eventually build a branch to the redwood park, although the 1906 Earthquake shelved these plans an they were never seriously revived. The Ocean Shore Railway also considered constructing a line either up Waddell Creek or, more likely, up Pescadero Creek until a branch could turn south into Big Basin. Other proposals ranging from streetcars and funiculars to gondolas appeared periodically in local newspapers, but none were actually built and rail access never came to Big Basin.

Main entrance to California Redwood Park, c. 1920. [Santa Cruz Public Libraries]
A proposal to connect Big Basin to the old Saratoga Toll Road near Waterman Gap was made as early as 1905, but it was not acted upon until 1911 and was not completed until 1915, in time for the Panama-Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco. By the 1920s, however, this route became the "official" park entrance, marked with an overhead arch in a meadow and a scenic drive through along the rim of the San Lorenzo Valley. Nonetheless, the majority of traffic still came via Big Basin Way between Boulder Creek and Big Basin. In the 1950s, both of these roads were taken over by the state to become Highway 236.

The Auto Tree at California Redwood Park, c. 1920. [Santa Cruz Public Libraries]
As vehicular access to the park became easier, a 21-foot diameter, fire-damaged redwood tree at Governor's Camp was hollowed out to allow automobiles to drive through it. The tree remains at the park but cars are no longer able to drive through it.

Redwood Inn at California Redwood Park, c. 1920. [Santa Cruz Public Libraries]
The Redwood Inn was the first formal lodge at Big Basin. Over the years, the facilities at the park were expanded and preserved. As part of the government's employment efforts in the 1930s, a team from the Civilian Conservation Corps built a new nature lodge and park headquarters at Governor's Camp while also erecting bridges, cabins, campground stoves, trails, a swimming pool, and a large campfire in the middle of the park.

The swimming pool at Big Basin, c. 1940s. [Capitola Museum]
While the campfire with its redwood stage is probably the most iconic structure built in this period, the swimming pool was certainly the most popular. Thousands of people swam in the pool every summer of the 1940s and 1950s. Its ultimate closure was not due to disuse but rather a failure to meet safety and hygiene standards as well as a feeling by some that it distracted from the natural beauty of the park.

Monterey pines along Waddell Creek near its mouth, c. 1910.
[Wieslander Vegetation Type Mapping (VTM) Collection at UC Berkeley]
Since it first opened in 1902, the park has continued to grow by leaps and bounds. In 1906, Middleton's Big Basin Lumber Company sold 3,901 acres to the California Redwood Park Commission, a government agency setup to purchase and otherwise acquire additional land for the state park. A decade later, another 3,785 of federal land was transferred to the park. The park was renamed Big Basin Redwoods State Park in 1927, probably in anticipation of other state parks opening in Central California. In 1968, the Sempervirens Fund, a successor the original preservation club, set out to acquire as much of the Waddell Creek watershed as possible. By 1982, almost all of Rancho del Oso was annexed to the park, allowing for the creation of the Skyline to the Sea Trail between Governor's Camp and Waddell Beach on the Pacific Coast. One of the group's first victories was the establishment of Castle Rock State Park in 1968, and efforts have continued since then to connect Big Basin via trails to Castle Rock, Butano State Park, and Portola Redwoods State Park, all of which sit atop the ridge-line of the Santa Cruz Mountains. Today, Big Basin encompasses over 18,000 acres and remains one of the most popular state parks in California.

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  1. The photo of the women measuring the tree looks like the Giant at Henry Cowell. Are you sure it’s at Big Basin? Thanks for all the info. We are lucky to have two amazing parks in our county.

  2. Great job on this. Regarding the auto tree, people weren't actually able to drive through it just back into it with wagons, jalopies and more recently motorcycles.


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