Local tradition says that in the winter of 1846, Lt. Col. John C. Frémont camped within a redwood tree in a flat near the San Lorenzo River. The story stuck and, in 1867, Joseph Warren Welch purchased the grove around Frémont’s tree for a redwood resort.
The park quickly grew in popularity, especially after the Santa Cruz & Felton Railroad (later the South Pacific Coast and then Southern Pacific) built a platform across the river from the grove in 1876.
Weekenders rode the pioneer train to Big Trees Landing, forded the river, and camped beneath the towering giants. Welch capitalized on the interest by creating a small village which included a boarding house, saloon, general store, and dance pavilion.
The South Pacific Coast, with direct access to San Francisco, moved the platform immediately beside the grove in 1880, bringing in thousands of tourists annually.
A small ticket booth on the platform across from a short railroad siding serviced outgoing travelers. Welch eventually installed a large wall around the property to ensure that only paying guests enjoyed his redwoods.
Henry Cowell, Welch’s neighbor to the south, saw the potential of the tourist trade and built a resort immediately beside the trackside entrance to Welch’s resort. By the early 1890s, a restaurant, gift shop, and cabins occupied the clearing. Cowell leased the property to Milo Hopkins and it ran as Hopkins Big Trees until 1942.
Automobiles caused the railroad to give up on Big Trees in May 1939, except for the occasional excursion train. Busses stopped near the current site of Roaring Camp Railroads to drop off visitors to the Welch Grove while visitors to Cowell’s resort stopped at the Toll House Resort south of Felton.
Welch’s Big Trees Grove operated until 1930, when the Welchs sold the property to the County of Santa Cruz.
For the next 24 years, the park operated as Santa Cruz County Big Trees Park. The many historical buildings fell into disrepair and environmentalists in the 1960s ensured their demolition.
Henry Cowell’s heir, Samuel, gave up on the family redwood park in 1954. He negotiated with the State of California to merge his park and the county park into one large property with the proviso that it be named after his father.
Thus, today it is named Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park — still a mouthful, but a name with a lot of history.
- Derek Whaley is a local historian specializing in the railroading past of Santa Cruz County. For more information, visit his website at http://www.SantaCruzTrains.com/.