John Green, Big Basin’s original “Supervisor”

big basin redwoods state park
“Park Commissioners & Advisory Board,” by Andrew P. Hill (Sempervirens Club Records, History San Jose)
Recently we received an email from someone looking to identify a photograph of Big Basin Park taken by Andrew Putnam Hill that was owned by her family. Hill took many photographs of the Big Basin area in the Santa Cruz Mountains between 1900 and 1902 as part of his efforts to save the forest from logging and preserve the beautiful area as a protected state park. History San José is lucky to have a large number of these in our collection, part of the Sempervirens Club Records. In this case, Hill’s photograph led to a family discovery.

I recognized the photograph — a group of men standing in a grove of giant redwood trees. Sure enough, we had another print of the same image in our collection. I shared the caption from the photo, which listed the men pictured, and provided her with some background as to why and when it was taken. The album consists of 80 photographs of Big Basin taken by Hill, compiled (and likely captioned) by W. W. Richards, sporting secretary for the Sempervirens Club.

Well, it turned out that one of the men in the photograph, John Green, was her great-grandfather, a fact unknown to her until this time! After confirming this with another member of the family, she of course wanted to know more. Why was he in the photo? What was his role? Presumably this is why the photograph had been kept in her family.

Green is identified only as “Guide” in several of Hill’s photographs. What our researcher already knew was that John Green was a resident of Boulder Creek in the early 1900s. A Swedish immigrant who arrived in the US around 1880, he worked for one of the lumber companies around Big Basin. There was no further information on Green in the Sempervirens Club Records, nor in Carolyn de Vries’ excellent history Grand and Ancient Forest: The Story of Andrew P. Hill and Big Basin Redwood State Park (1978). He did not appear to be affiliated with the club in any respect other than his role as guide. We surmised that he worked for H. L. Middleton’s lumber operation at Big Basin, and that Middleton had hired him to take people around the property.

Middleton was the largest stockholder in the Big Basin Lumber Company, and had been won over by an exploration of the land in 1900 with the Sempervirens Club:

Somehow the members of the committee had been able to interest H. L. Middleton, largest stockholder in the Big Basin Lumber Company, in joining their exploration for a short time. It had been discovered that one of the mills owned by his company had packed machinery on mules over the mountains to the very rim of the Big Basin, close to some of the largest trees, and was ready to begin cutting. …’Mr. Middleton was dragged, willy-nilly, along with the camping party, and held as friendly hostage while his woodchoppers cut trails in any direction that was suggested. For the first time the extent of the Basin was fully realized, and the value of the watercourses, the Waddell, the Gazos, the Pescadero Creek, the Butano, all taking their sources here….Mr. Middleton had become inoculated with the spirit of this redwood-saving crowd… (de Vries, p. 24)

As a result of these efforts by the Sempervirens Club, Middleton assisted in obtaining an option for one year on 14,000 acres in the Big Basin area. However, when the time limit on the land option expired, and another logging operation run by I. T. Bloom began cutting timber in Big Basin, Hill “obtained permission from H. L. Middleton to invite Governor Gage and the members of the Park Commission to examine personally the proposed park site.” (de Vries, p. 44) The photograph above documents this September 1901 visit, in which Green acted as “guide.”

Through some contacts with the California State Parks Department, who led her to local author and Big Basin docent Scott Peden, the researcher discovered that her great-grandfather was not only a “guide,” but apparently the very first “superintendent” of Big Basin Park. According to Peden, Green was selected to be superintendent of the land by Middleton in the period between the State Park’s nominal approval in 1901 and the actual signing of the land purchase deal in 1902, before J.H.B. Pilkington was appointed as the park’s first guardian. So Green’s title of “guide” belied his role not only as acting supervisor of Big Basin, but also, according to Peden, Superintendent of Union Creek Mill (the Big Basin part of Middleton’s Groups holdings), and I. T. Bloom’s mill, also under at least some control of Middleton.

Clippings from Santa Cruz newspapers also reveal that Green moved to Jenner on the Sonoma Coast, where he acted as the small town’s postmaster. He passed away in San Francisco of stomach cancer at the age of 47.

by Cate Mills