How Andrew P. Hill Saved the Redwoods

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.


  1. Thanks Leonard.  It has been a long time since I visited Big Basin but there’s no question you feel much further away from civilization there than you really are.  It’s people like Andrew Hill that got the ball rolling for more preservation efforts that we continue to see today.

    How about a piece on Alum Rock Park, another first for this area as I’ve seen it written that it’s the oldest city park in the state.  It’s sad that it’s a ghost of its former self and there’s just plain old water coming out of those fountains under the dome.

  2. There’s nothing more beautiful then Big Basin. The best kept secret there is the tent cabins. Beds inside, a small fireplace to keep the cabin warm, and a table to eat at. I could live the rest of my life there if they’d let me. Beautiful! Thanks for the story!

  3. Thanks Leonard, for sharing AP Hill’s legacy with everyone.  His vision and actions illustrated what Margaret Mead later said: “A small group of thoughtful people could change the world. Indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”

    That vision is is very alive with the Sempervirens Fund, the successor to Sempervirens Club that AP Hill founded in 1900.  for photos of AP Hill, see

    As California’s oldest land conservancy, Semperviens has bought and protected over 23,500 acres of redwood forests that are now part of Big Basin and other redwood parks. We’re currently completing the purchase of the 425 acre Lompico Headwaters, near Felton and welcome contributions.

    We’re supported by over 8,000 donors from the Bay area and around the world who share AP Hill’s vision of protecting the redwoods of the Santa Cruz Mountains. 

    Thanks again, Leonard!

    —Brian Steen, Executive Director

  4. Thanks to historic preservationists we can see A. P. Hill’s home at the History Park in Kelley Park.  You can also enjoy many of Hill’s finest paintings and photos there,  thanks to Leonard and others.  It is nice to know that we still have citizens preserving our resources (both natural and man made) for our grandchildren to enjoy.

  5. Leonard,
      Having fished Salmon with your son for many years, It is easy to understand where he got the ability to embrace his friends and strangers who met him aboard the Stagnaro boats.
      Strangers would marvel at his ability to catch Salmon. When asked how he could be so proffecient by strangers, he would spit on his bait and let it go down into the briney. FISH ON!
      He would have every mother’s son on that boat spitting on their baits, and you know, everybody would start catching fish. When things would get a bit slow, I even spit on my bait a time or two. Dam if that didn’t work. In his honor the guys at Henrys Hi Life started an Annual Salmon Fishing Derby.
      The love of the sea is reflected in the dedication to the harvesting of Gods creatures. With this dedication comes the responsibility to protect and nurture.
      The deep dark redwood forest is the nursery for the sea going Coho and Chinook Salmon.
      I’ve lived most of my life seeing the coastal sky line to the west and the Mt Hamilton ridge line to the east. Two distinct eco systems. I chose to spend my life in the western skyline to the sea. If we take the time to spend, simply being enveloped by it’s vastness, we will learn to appreciate the diverse abundance of wild life that exists at our very feet.
      Some years ago, my mentor Tony Look and I set out to create a book about Sempervirens Fund.  History San Jose was just beginning to establish it’s self.
      Now, the history of Sempervirens Club, is archived and protected for future generations.
      Go to “History San Jose” , clik on “Local History Collection High Lights”, clik on “Sempervirens Club Records” clik on Discriptive Summary. Then enjoy!!
      Some times we forget that life is not always about politics and redevelopment. it is about discovering our past in order to create the future for our grand children. As you discribed the age of old growth redwood trees. Our direct connection to Christ is in that magnificent old Sequoia Semperviren.
      Thanking you is not enough! My faith in man kind and my own self esteem have been elevated this evening by finding the connection in me, thru your generous embrace of those that preceeded us.
                          Gil Hernandez
                  Director, Sempervirens Fund

  6. Leonard, thanks for a wonderful article, we’re lucky to have some groves of big redwoods remaining.  I see that Mark (#2 above) asks for an article about Alum Rock Park.  I recall Eric Carlson writing a story about the park a couple of years ago.  He indicated that there were albino colonies inside of the park, dangerous folks according to Eric.

  7. Thanks for the excellent article on Andrew Hill – up to this point I had been ignorant of the man behind the name. It makes me wonder what he would say (and do) if he was to witness the last two decades of development in the valley.

    For Mark T (#2) and others who are interested, a local neighborhood newsletter has run some articles on the history of Alum Rock park. You can find an archive here:


  8. There once was a time when land had NO COST. Nothing in the world could buy it. Perhaps it was a time when people had a higher moral value and appreciation for the earth that gave them life. We need more leaders like Andrew Hill in our lifetime to preserve anything that remains. Encroachment is a constant battle and soon those very sanctuaries that have been preserved for years will be under attack as well. Is there no end to our constant consumption, expansive attitude as a species? Many have lost their spiritual connection to these niches of Earth are the very roots of what gave us life. It is unappreciated, littered, defaced, and bought out. The greatest tragedy of our species really.


  9. As I read Gary Singh’s post on the deforestation of St James Park, in todays postings of San Jose Inside, I am left with a feeling of sadness for the way we as a city care for our oldest trees.
      How many of you know about the Redwood Trees that were dedicated, planted and are now very large and stately at Backesto Park.
      The same is true of many of the trees that were planted in all of our city parks.
      One day take a walk on the San Jose State campus. Notice all of the old bronze plaques, from the tree dedications to the thought provocing passages that were captured for all time in bronze.
      What happened to San Jose’s history?  History San Jose only got a head start a few years ago. They have done an incredable job of archiving so much in such a shot time. Undoubtably there is so much more to accomplish to get our history on line and accessable to the general public. They need our support.
      There are no living things that out live the trees of our Village and surronding Coastal Redwood Forests.
      A few 2000 year old Redwood Trees live but an hour away from us. Closer still are 1000 year old Redwood Trees. Most , sadly are but 100 years old, second growth after the loggers cut the mother trees, to extract board feet for a growing and rebuilding of the devestation of the 06 earth quake and good neighbor fences.
      I have been an active Board Member of Sempervirens Fund for the past 20 years. This year, I decided to spend the rest of my life nurturing the forest of children that are systematicly being routed out of the educational system. 60 percent dropout rates at the 9th thru the 12th grade level.
      Yet the very international corporating that call this Village home to their corporate offices continue to import waves of engineers from off shore and take their manufacturing off shore as well.
      The wall that was waiting to be hit has come to pass. Where are these companies going to sell their product in Fresno, yreka, East LA, Oroville,. Who needs a computer game toy when a tank of gas costs as much. We need to focus on our Home Base. Each corporating must direct one or several executives to perform a collective outreach into this community. This should be mandatory with educational goals. 
    The polluters are doing as such, by buying up carbon Credits to offset their carbon footprint.
      So should the corporations be allowed to buy Student credits to off set their importation of knowledge from off shore countries.
      I find it interesting that Asians, Vietnamese have appeared thruout the spectrum of our society in a few short years, the Indians in convienece stores and Gas stations,motels.
      Yet the folks that have been responsible in feeding the masses for decades, are being chased thru out the city and tomatoe fields like hounds on a hare hunt.
      Minute Men horribly executing their hatred, while our country is invading other countries and killing not only our own son and daughters, but innocent women and children there as well.
      Perhaps a good start is to plant a live tree. Place a bronze plaque next to it. Support a child thru the hard times of educational apathy. Raising the level of self esteem of each of our corporations in the precess. This, after all is said and done, is still the Village we call home.
      Gil Hernandez / The Village Black Smith

  10. Good Morning San Jose Inside!
      I was polking around sending My Brother some of the articles of which I have contributed to and came upon this Post by our beloved Leonard McKay. October 2, 2006.
      In contrast, this is a very powerful piece of ideas.
      It seems we have become enbroiled in a society that we created and now cannot understand , save but by oppressing it. The demographic of our Village.
      Deserving students are being systematicly being turned away from our colleges. Our Village deserves better. We have been chasing our tails for years in the down town core. Redevelopment should mean just that . The redevelopment of our community and Educational system.
      The National Hispanic University is a Jewel with a Brillant Future. They have sent their student debating teams to compete against the cream of our Nation’s Colleges and have never failed to bring home the PRIZE. Yet there is no mention of this wonderful educational entity when the publications are writing about the students not getting into the Universities of our Village because there is no room for them.
      I belive Sam Licardo is on the Right Course. Gracious as he was to Chief Davis. The change is here now. Accounability is at hand in the down town core. The coropations did little to educate our Village, as did others responcible for doing such. In Memory of Leonard McKay, lets save the Children as Andrew Hill Saved the Redwoods. The World is Watching how we Heal Ourselves for Tomorrow! It’s our Village, not theirs!     
                    Gil Hernandez

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