On June 30, California celebrates the founding of its state parks, the world’s first.
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That distinction occurred in 1864, after President Abraham Lincoln — acting in response to petitions by numerous individuals, including California’s U.S. Sen. John Conness, Galen Clark, Israel Ward Raymond, Jessie Benton Frémont, Thomas Starr King, Bret Harte and Horace Greeley among them — signed the Yosemite Grant, preserving Yosemite Valley and the Mariposa Grove of Big Trees from settlement and ceding the lands to the state of California for “public use, resort and recreation … inalienable for all time.”
Though it took a couple more years for the state of California to formally accept the grant and appoint a guardian (Galen Clark, who thereby became the nation’s first park ranger), Lincoln’s act effectively established California State Parks. Today, California has 280 park units, visited by almost 70 million people, annually.
They include state parks, state historical parks, state reserves, state recreation areas and state vehicular recreation areas and state beaches containing the largest and most diverse natural and cultural heritage holdings of any state agency in the nation.
The diversity and quality within California State Parks is remarkable. To be experienced within them are Spanish colonial era adobe buildings dating to the 1700s, lighthouses, prehistoric sites, ghost towns, homes and estates (Hearst Castle), wildlife areas, battlefields, historic settlements, wildflower reserves, cultural landmarks, sand dunes, museums, redwood forests and one-third of California’s scenic coastline.
In all, some 1.4 million acres, over 280 miles of coastline, 625 miles of lake and river frontage, nearly 15,000 campsites and 3,000 miles of hiking, biking and equestrian trails are within the California State Parks.
Yosemite Valley and the Mariposa Grove remained a state park until 1906, when they were incorporated into Yosemite National Park which, in 1890, was established surrounding the state’s holdings. Yosemite’s preservation began a movement to preserve California landscapes. At first, it inspired individuals to act.
Just three years after the Yosemite Grant was signed, Joseph Warren Welch, a prosperous San Francisco businessman, intervened at the last moment, to buy Big Trees Ranch, a redwood forest along the San Lorenzo River north of Santa Cruz to assure that the Big Trees there would be spared being cut. The deed was recorded on Dec. 26, 1867, thereby making Welch the first person to preserve California’s coastal redwoods (sequoia sempervirens) from logging.
In 1869, thwarted by Welch’s purchase of Big Trees Ranch, local lumbermen hired George Wright to survey a railroad line from Santa Cruz to a point 100 feet beyond the Welch property. Welch opposed the construction of the railroad when it sought to condemn a right of way through his grove of Big Trees. Litigation followed, delaying construction of the railroad until 1874. Welch continued to fight the railroad and extensive litigation continued, delaying construction of the railroad until 1874 when the California Legislature granted a charter to the Santa Cruz & Felton Railroad Co.
On Oct. 13, 1875, construction of the railroad was completed and the first passenger train steamed the six miles from Santa Cruz to Felton over the three-foot-gauge track. Newspapers reported that a crowd of 2,500 had gathered in Felton that day to picnic in the redwoods and celebrate the opening of the Santa Cruz & Felton.
Recognizing the interest that people had in seeing the redwoods, Welch opened his grove to visiting train passengers and established Welch’s Big Trees Resort. To help pay for the continued preservation of the redwoods, he charged 25 cents to see or photograph them.
In 1899, photographer Andrew Hill arrived at the resort, but refused to contribute to the preservation of the trees and pay the 25 cents. He left after Welch insisted that Hill either pay the 25 cents or surrender his photographic plates. Hill later petitioned the state Legislature for the establishment of state-owned groves of redwoods, prompting the establishment in 1902 of Big Basin Redwoods State Park, several miles north of Felton.
Welch’s Big Trees Resort remained a prime attraction within Santa Cruz County’s growing tourism industry until 1930 when the Welch family sold part of the grove to the county. That year, Samuel Cowell, the son and heir of Henry Cowell (a man who had earned a fortune from providing drayage services during the California gold rush and from timber and mining in Santa Cruz County), sought a suitable monument to his pioneering father. Cowell stipulated that he would donate over 1,600 acres of land to the state of California should the county also deed its portion of the Welch grove to the state, creating a new combined park to be named Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park.
In an ironic twist, Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park is named after a man whose wealth resulted partly from cutting redwood trees, whereas the man who actually saved the trees from being cut (Joseph Welch) has no similar memorial. More insulting is that Welch is often remembered as the man who charged to see coastal redwoods, rather than as the first individual in California to have acted to save them from being cut.
Similarly, though Andrew Hill refused to pay a quarter to preserve the trees, he is remembered as their great protector, while Welch — who invested a personal fortune to save them with no intent of personal gain — is often wrongly described as someone who sought to profit from them.
Nevertheless, what evolved from these naiscent individual interests in preserving resources was the inculcation of a broader public interest in saving the redwoods and setting aside great places, like Yosemite. Groups such as the Save the Redwoods League, Sempervirens Fund, Native Sons and Daughters of the Golden West, and California Historical Society sought the purchase of lands and historic sites for conservation and, eventually, a California State Park Commission and California State Parks Foundation were established.
The world’s first state parks now include urban parks, underwater parks, vehicular parks and parks just for wind surfing, snowmobiling, off-roading, dog-sledding or riding ATVs through the dunes. What was one park and a new idea has become a world phenomenon of state and national parks. Among his many accomplishments, Abraham Lincoln’s grant continues to live its precept, of providing “public use, resort and recreation … inalienable for all time.”
For more about California State parks, visit parks.ca.gov.
John Poimiroo of El Dorado Hills is a travel writer who specializes in California destinations.