Have you ever been to Big Basin Park and stood under a giant redwood, the tallest living trees on earth, and wondered how and why they are still here? This is the story of the man who saved them: artist and photographer Andrew Putnam Hill.
Hill came to California in 1867 at the age of 14, just before the continental railway was built. His father, Elijah, had made the journey just before Andrew was born, but before he reached the golden land, Elijah and a companion were attacked by Indians. Elijah survived the fight, but he died a week later of exposure and exhaustion.
Andrew came west with his uncle and attended the small College of Santa Clara, first as a high school student and then as a college freshman. When his funds were spent, he left school to support himself. Although a Protestant, he had many Catholic friends at Santa Clara who were to assist him in later years.
His early working years were spent as a draftsman. He later attended the California School of Design, where he perfected his natural talent for art. He opened a portrait studio in San Jose with a succession of partners. Although an accomplished artist, he was a poor businessman, plagued by bad luck. In order to supplement his income and feed his growing family, he took up photography, as painting was in economic decline.
In 1899, a major fire erupted in the redwood forests near the summit of the Santa Cruz Mountains above Los Gatos. Hill photographed the burning trees for a London newspaper where the editors marveled at the size of the trees. They commissioned Hill for more pictures of just the redwoods. These trees, the Sequoia Sempervirens, are the tallest trees in the world, with a lifespan of over 2,000 years. The Sequoia Gigantia may be bigger, containing more board feet than any other tree, but the Sempervirens are the tallest.
On assignment, Hill took his bulky camera to the Santa Cruz grove that we know today as Big Trees Grove near Felton. The grove was then in private ownership, and after Hill had shot many pictures of the trees, the owner, Joseph Welch, confronted him for “unauthorized” photography and demanded the glass negatives. Hill, a big man, refused and strong words were exchanged. The episode so enraged Hill that that he determined to do something about saving the redwoods, as almost all of the virgin trees had been cut for lumber.
It was suggested that the trees in Big Basin were larger and more important than those in the Big Trees Grove. In 1900, an investigative party of leading and concerned citizens explored Big Basin. They were so impressed that they vowed to save the trees and Hill began his crusade.
A long, hard battle ensued. Hill had help from many quarters: President Jordan and many faculty members of Stanford University; Father Kenna, S.J., the president of Santa Clara College; James Phelan, mayor of San Francisco and later a state senator; and, most particularly, Carrie Stevens Walter, who became the first secretary of the Sempervirens Society and participated in all of its battles. Had the forest not been saved at that time, it was estimated that in six months, there would not be any virgin trees remaining.
Hill’s campaign led him to the state legislature in Sacramento. After many months of negotiation, it came to a final vote. The preliminary indications were that the state would not approve the requested expenditure of $250,000. Hill obtained a guarantee of $50,000 from Fr. Kenna’s nephew, James Phelan, payable to the lumber companies’ owners, forfeitable if the state did not purchase the property. At midnight, the night before the vote was to be taken, Hill walked three miles (the street cars had stopped running) from Santa Clara to the Herald newspaper offices in San Jose where the editor, Harry Wells, had a special edition published headlining the guarantee. Hill waited for the papers to be printed then boarded the 4:30 a.m. train to Sacramento, where a copy was placed on each legislator’s desk. The bill passed unanimously; private citizens then matched the state’s $250,000 and, thus, California got its first state park, California Redwood Park, today known as Big Basin.
When Hill died in 1922, he left his family an estate valued at less than $900. He left all of us a legacy that is immeasurable, the wonderful giant redwoods that were born before Christ.