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The Creation of the Park

From Henry Cowell History - by Jeff Jones
It could be said without too much exaggeration that a British magazine was responsible for the creation of the California State Park system. Furthermore, it was because of photographs not taken of a famous grove of majestic old-growth redwood trees near Felton that the preservationist movement began which eventually established California's first State Park. A British magazine and photographs never taken? These are a part of the interesting and varied history of what is now Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park.

By the year 1889 California's redwood trees were internationally famous. In that year an English publication hired Andrew P. Hill, San Jose artist, photographer, and writer, to do a story on the huge redwoods of the nearby Santa Cruz Mountains. Hill packed his equipment in a trunk and traveled by narrow gauge railway over the summit and down to Big Trees Station just outside of Felton. There he found the perfect subjects for his magazine piece... magnificent virgin redwoods, some approaching 300 feet in height. However, he had hardly set up his camera when the owner of the grove, Joseph Welch, cam and chased him off. Welch did not want commercial photographs taken of his trees unless he received payment. Hill went back to San Jose without any pictures to accompany his article. Instead he carried only anger resulting from his confrontation with Welch. Hill thought it unjust that these beautiful redwoods were not available for everyone to experience.

On his next trip to the Santa Cruz Mountains Andrew Hill avoided Welch's grove and went deeper into the back country to the Big Basin area. There he photographed extensively and became so inspired by the ancient majesty of the trees that he and friends formed the Sempervirens Club. The members dedicated their organization to the preservation of redwood trees for all to enjoy. They attracted wealthy and influential people who raised funds and convinced legislators to purchase Big Basin and establish California's first State Park. All this was set in motion by a British magazine and some photographs not taken.

Joseph Welch cannot really be faulted for running Andrew Hill off of his property. Welch had owned the grove since 1867 and had worked very hard to build a comfortable and popular resort amidst the redwoods. By the turn of the century, it was complete with train station, hotel, dining hall, cabins, and dance pavilion. Dignitaries from all over the world came to marvel at the trees. In 1888 John C. Fremont visited a tree named in his honor. Three years later President Benjamin Harrison walked through the grove and a picturesque group of redwoods was named after him. Welch's Big Trees Resort was on the itinerary of practically every touring visitor to the general San Francisco area.

At the same time that Welch's enterprise was flourishing, another Santa Cruz pioneer businessman was also enjoying remarkable success. Henry Cowell had arrived in the Santa Cruz area in 1865. He had already demonstrated his business acumen by establishing a successful drayage company in San Francisco. In Santa Cruz he diversified by ultimately entering the limestone quarrying and processing business. He acquired thousands of acres of land and ultimately gained control of two lime producing companies. The Santa Cruz area was blessed with many natural outcroppings of limestone. During the years of highest demand nearly 80% of lime for the state came from Santa Cruz county. Intense heat was used to convert the quarried rock into usable material. Kilns were built in several locations including the North Fork of Fall Creek and in the Rincon area of the San Lorenzo River. Hundreds of thousands of cords of wood were burned over the years to keep the kiln fires burning. The Cowell family's ranches and lime operations prospered and eventually the Cowell name was on the title of 6,500 acres of Santa Cruz County land. The holdings included over 1600 acres of forest and river frontage adjacent to Welch's Big Trees Resort.

As the twentieth century progressed the Welch family began to look for a buyer for the resort and surrounding property. Welch's son and the County worked toward a purchase that would make the grove a county park, thereby preserving the beautiful redwoods. Many local people were excited by the prospect, but others were worried about the strain on the County budget such a purchase and subsequent operation would be. In the end the Park advocates prevailed, thanks largely to the indefatigable efforts of former Lieutenant Governor William Jeter. Though elderly and confined to a hospital bed, Jeter wrote letters, made phone calls, and most likely twisted a few well-chosen arms on behalf of the Park idea. In 1930 Santa Cruz County paid $75,000 for 120 acres which included the incomparable 40 acre Big Tree Grove. For the next 24 years the County managed the area and it continued to be a favorite setting for picnics, walks, and swimming for local and out-of-town visitors alike.

By 1950 there was only one member of the Cowell family left. Samual "Harry" Cowell was nearly ninety years old. He had long been an outdoorsman and he was especially fond of the family's property next to Welch's grove. In 1952 he decided he wanted to give that property to the State for a park in memory of his father. His idea was to have the County give up ownership of the Grove to the State at the same time so that it could all be managed together. Cowell's representatives met with State and County officials and negotiations were successful. On August 18, 1954, Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park was formally dedicated as a new unit in California's State Park System.

The park today is a wonderful combination of unique natural features, comfortable facilities, and easy accessibility. The Henry Cowell and Fall Creek units combine to comprise over 4000 acres. Thirty miles of hiking trails wind through five distinct plant communities. Native wildlife abounds, from the commonly seen jays, squirrels and deer to more elusive ringtails, bobcats, and occasional golden eagles. The 0.8-mile main Redwood Loop Trail circles through trees which have stood well over a thousand years and are as fine a grove of redwoods as can be experienced anywhere. Facilities include a 112 unit developed campground and a large picnic area along the San Lorenzo River. In addition, a group picnic area can accommodate up to 400 people and is frequently reserved for company picnics, family reunions, and by many clubs and organizations.

In a real sense the present park is carrying on the tradition of its historical use. Though the cabins and dance pavilion are gone, the intrinsic beauty endures. Thousands of people visit each year for the same reasons people have always come -- to relax with friends and family; to breath in the reassuring peace and beauty of the redwoods; and to be renewed by personally reconnecting with the fundamental and abiding glory of nature.