Sunday, July 24, 2011

Bidwell Park, Chico

Main entry flanked by stone columns and accented by flowering Dogwood
Bidwell Park is the third largest urban park in the United States. It is a long, narrow park that starts in downtown not far from the Bidwell Mansion and extends for over five miles into wilderness. It has 68 miles of walking and bicycle trails. The lower portion of the park is closest to downtown and is the most developed with several entry points from adjacent residential neighborhoods. The main entry is off South Park Drive west of Mangrove Avenue. This entry is flanked by a pair of simple, rough-hewn, granite columns, each topped with a stout, rectangular light.

Amenities in the lower portion of the park include picnic facilities, open lawn areas, a baseball field, horseshow pits, a themed children’s play area called “Caper Acres”, and by far my favorite feature - Sycamore swimming pool formed by the damming of Chico Creek. The water flows rapidly through the pool, which is about 600 feet in length and 95 feet wide, and then exits via a spillway at the east end. A footbridge crosses over the spillway. Native sycamore trees line one side of the pool.

Enticing Sycamore pool is fed by Big Chico Creek

The middle portion of the park consists of trails and a single, one-way drive that lie beneath a continuous canopy of trees. Summer temperatures in Chico are typically in the 100s so these trees and the swimming pool are essential amenities. Tree species are predominantly valley oak (Quercus lobata), and native sycamore (Platanus racemosa). The understory is mostly grasses, willow and spice bush (Calycanthus occidentalis). Big Chico Creek continues through the middle and upper portions of the park, and there are individual picnic facilities along the drive, each with a barbeque.

Paths throughout the park are shaded by mature trees

Facilities in the Upper portion of the park include an 18-hole golf course, a driving range, an observatory, a fishing pier, Horseshoe Lake, picnic facilities, and equestrian trails. Just east of Manzanita Avenue is the Hooker Oak Picnic Area – named for the Hooker Oak – the largest known valley oak until it fell in a 1977 storm. The entire park has a rustic, informal quality. There is very little irrigated, mown lawn. Instead the park brings the wilderness into downtown.

Annie Bidwell donated the land to the people of Chico in 1905 for a public park. She said at the time that the grant followed the desire of her late husband. In subsequent years she made additional donations to expand the park. This generous gift is the heart of Chico – a treasure enjoyed and appreciated by visitors and residents – particularly on hot summer days. If you plan a visit and go in summer I dare you to resist a plunge into Sycamore Pool.

Much of the park consists of a continuous canopy of trees with grasses below

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Bidwell Mansion, Chico

Mansion, oval planter and Southern Magnolia.  Fan palm at right.
Visiting Chico one cannot avoid contact with the legacy of their most famous residents – John Bidwell and his wife Annie Ellicott Kennedy Bidwell. John Bidwell was part of the first wagon trains that arrived in California, he discovered gold in 1848, laid out the town of Chico, served in the House of Representatives, lobbied for California statehood, and ran for President of the United States in 1892. Annie Bidwell was the daughter of Joseph C.G. Kennedy, Superintendent of the U.S. Census and was an advocate for prohibition and the suffragette movement. Their legacy dominates the town of Chico – the two primary components are their home - the Bidwell Mansion and Bidwell Park.

What is incredible is how much of the property retains features as they were depicted in a circa 1877 sketch by Smith and Elliott. The most significant landscape feature is a large oval-shaped planting bed, as wide as the width of the house. The bed is surrounded by an oval drive that passes beneath the porte-cochere. A southern magnolia (Magnolia grandiflora) 25 – 35 feet taller than the three story tower of the house is planted in the oval.

Tulip Tree (Liriodendron tulipifera)

Other original trees that remain are a maidenhair tree (Ginkgo biloba), a spectacular – in size and form - tulip tree (Liriodendron tulipifera), a South American monkey puzzle (Auracaria imbricata) and a Lawson cypress (Cupressus lawsoniana). These trees are growing within a broad expanse of lawn between the mansion and Esplanade – typical of Victorian era gardens, and were intended to demonstrate the owner’s wealth and taste.

A lushly planted area south of the mansion, along the Big Chico Creek, remains today though the trees are much larger than those in the Smith and Elliott sketch. Also the location of the main road – now called Esplanade appears to be in the same location as shown in the sketch.

In 1877 the area north of the mansion was planted in orchards and vineyards. Today, this area has been developed as housing and commercial areas.

Lawson Cypress and a Fan Palm
 John Bidwell was born in 1819 in New York State. In 1841, at the age of 22, he was one of the first pioneers to cross the Sierra Nevada in route to California. When he first arrived he served as the business manager for John Sutter and personally transported the first gold discovered in California to San Francisco to be assayed.

Shortly thereafter in 1848 Bidwell made his own gold discovery near the middle fork of the Feather River. He used his new found wealth to purchase the 26,000 acre Rancho del Arroyo Chico and began developing the agriculture of the region. At one point the Rancho was the most famous and highly diversified agricultural enterprise in California. In 1860 Bidwell laid out the town of Chico.

In 1865 he hired San Francisco architect Henry W. Cleveland to design his 10,000 square foot, 26-room Italian villa. In April of 1868 he convinced Annie Ellicott Kennedy to marry him and shortly thereafter they moved into the mansion.

Side porch, Magnolia in the background

The Bidwells remained in the mansion until their deaths in 1900 (John) and 1918 (Annie) at which time Annie Bidwell gave the mansion and grounds to the Presbyterian Church to serve as a school. Then in 1923 the site was acquired by the State College, and finally it was purchased by California State Parks and designated as a State Historic Park. The property is California Registered Historic Landmark No. 329, 1966, and HALS No. CA-63. 

Looking at the Magnolia from the front porch