Matthew Reed: Freelance writer and editor

Matthew Reed

Published and academic writing

History of California State Parks

California’s environment includes redwood forests, expansive beaches, cloud-wrapped mountains, and ascetic deserts. Additionally, some of the United States’ most noted residences and historic locations lie within the boundaries of California, including William Randolph Hearst’s former home and the gold discovery site at Coloma that touched off the Gold Rush. In the first half of the 20th Century, California established a system of parks and beaches that, for pure variety and depth of experience, is second to none. The California State Parks system, currently under attack by the state leadership entrusted to protect the State’s natural and cultural resources, was at one time the premier state park system in the United States that enabled the study of nature in relation to humans as well as preserving the cultural history of California and the United States.

The basic idea behind parks in general, and California’s state parks specifically, stems from an idea articulated by Nineteenth Century artist George Catlin in 1832 when he wrote that the nation needed a “great protecting policy” to create a “nation’s park, containing man and beast, in all the wild and freshness of their nature’s beauty.”[1] This philosophy would find articulation in the establishment of New York’s Central Park in the 1850s, an open space in an urban area that was designed by Frederick Law Olmstead, a later champion of California’s state parks.[2] The concept of wild places to be set aside for recreation and renewal ultimately became embodied in the fight to transform Yosemite Valley into California’s first state park.

The genesis of California’s State Parks was the grant of Yosemite Valley to the state by the Federal government. Supporters of parks reflected a national fascination with the monumental scenery of the West. As Richard White writes, “The United States was a young nation lacking both an ancient history and a cultural tradition rich in art, architecture, or literature. Americans looked to scenery as compensation for the cultural riches they lacked.” Parks boosters hoped nature would “…provide the inspiration, the sublimity, and the glimpse of timelessness that American culture had not yet achieved.” Yosemite Valley was a symbol of national greatness that “…rivaled in grandeur the monuments of Europe’s antiquity.”[3] Notorious newspaper mogul Horace Greeley was enthralled by Yosemite when, in 1859, he described the valley as the “most unique and majestic of nature’s marvels.”[4] That the Yosemite Valley was the first region set aside by any government for the use of a park is a significant tribute to not just the awesome beauty of Yosemite itself, but also to California’s remarkable natural diversity.

Much of the credit for the preservation of Yosemite, and California’s future State Parks in general, came from Frederick Law Olmstead, a man familiar with human transformation of natural areas through his career as a landscape architect and the designer of New York’s Central Park and the 1893 Columbian Exposition. At the time, there was not really a concept of a national park; however, federal land grants for an assortment of other purposes were so frequent that the proposal for a park went largely unopposed.[5] A second man who would become synonymous California’s Yosemite would be John Muir. Muir gave voice to the recreational views of his time when he wrote, “Everybody needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in and pray in, where Nature may heal and give strength to body and soul alike.”[6] The parks were born of a desire to keep a place that was not constructed by humans and enable the relaxation of working Americans.

In 1864, Federal legislation was authored by Senator John Conness of California that called for a grant to the California of 20,000 acres of the Yosemite Valley and the nearby Mariposa Big Tree Grove. Land grants to the states and to private corporations were relatively common at this time of US history. However, this new grant called for the preservation and protection of natural resources and scenery. Additionally, the grant was made “…upon the express conditions that the premises shall be held for public use, resort, and recreation, and shall be inalienable for all time.”[7] Today, the uniform patches of the employees of California State Parks are embroidered with the words “since 1864” as a tribute to California’s role as an early steward of Yosemite.

The formation of state-level parks, particularly in California, was the cultural expression of changes in the larger American society. Essentially, parks were larger versions of urban open areas that had become popular in urban planning in Europe. Establishing open space was frequently incorporated into planning for the increasing need for public recreation. As the nation flourished economically, there was an increasing need for outdoor recreation. People were becoming more aware and more interested in nature as well as in preserving some of the nation’s more remarkable scene. As this was occurring, a number of national parks were established for the purposes of preservation of nature and provision of public recreation.”[8]

One of the most devastating economic disasters in U.S. history would, ironically, become a significant golden age for state parks nationwide. As part of President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal efforts to combat the Great Depression, federal agencies such as the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), the Public Works Administration (PWA), the Works Progress Administration (WPA), and the Civil Works Administration (CWA) employed the people to work in and establish parks. These federal programs enabled an unprecedented level of park development in the United States. More than other programs, the CCC was associated with state park development. By the time the CCC was extinguished in 1942, the CCC had built or improved 405 state parks in 43 states.[9]

One of the parks established by the CCC was Russian Gulch State Park, near Mendocino, CA. As the editor of the local newspaper The Mendocino Beacon, Auggie Heeser, wrote:

Development work in this park has been under way now for the past year by a crew of CCC workers, and, strange as it may seem, very few of us in Mendocino county or northern California know what it is all about. In fact it takes a visit to this place to bring home the realization that here within a stone’s throw of our running board, as we speed along the highway, is one of nature’s masterpieces.

Heeser continued, “We have heard it said, and until today had no reason to dispute the statement, that this park was being developed for the benefit of the people of the Mendocino Coast. But one glance is sufficient to realize that if God ever created a panacea for the tired business man of the city or the burned out resident of one of our inland valleys, this is it.”[10] The establishment of a new state park in a particularly rural area was greeted positively. The park represented the potential for tourism and that meant money coming into the area. Russian Gulch State Park is slated for permanent closure by California in 2012.

Certain basic principles would form a philosophy of park acquisition for California. These basic conceits were proposed by Frederick Law Olmstead, who would inventory and describe many of California’s early parks. Olmstead’s ideas guided the California State Parks as it developed into a comprehensive park system in the early 20th Century. Olmstead’s ideas were not new and had been used elsewhere at the urban level in creating parks. Basically, areas designated as possible parks needed to be singularly notable so as to attract visitors from other parts of the state. Also, parks needed to represent scenic and natural resources that were unlikely to be conserved by development or private ownership. State parks needed to provide a unique recreation not available through local parks or the national parks. Finally, California’s state parks needed to represent the geographically diverse environment of the state and make them as available to the state’s residents as reasonable.[11]

In his official report on California’s parks, Olmstead laid down the basic philosophical, political, and economic justifications for state and national parks. He wrote “First and least important is the direct and obvious pecuniary advantage which comes to a commonwealth from the fact that it possesses objects…that are attractive to travelers and the enjoyment of which is open to all.”[12] Olmstead argued that the tourism industry in Switzerland was the envy of nations all around the world. There was no need for a country to spend a lot of money on art and architecture when the natural environment itself was a treasure beyond measure, such as Yosemite Valley. More important to Olmstead was the public ownership and development of Yosemite and other scenic areas. According to Olmstead, public ownership of natural resources was a critical mission “…to which seldom if ever before has proper respect been paid by any government in the world…It is the main duty of government, if it is not the sole duty of government, to provide means of protection for all its citizens in the pursuit of happiness against obstacles, otherwise insurmountable, which the selfishness of individuals or combinations of individuals is liable to interpose to that pursuit…”[13] For Olmstead, the American pursuit of happiness was inherently tied to outdoor leisure and recreation in protected areas of the natural environment.

State parks were a bridge between the smaller urban parks and the vast national parks. As in city parks, state parks could offer picnicking and day-use facilities while at the same time they provided similar types of outdoor recreation found in national parks, such as camping and areas for extensive hiking. Additionally, “…state parks focused on environmental resource-based recreation opportunities… As a result, state parks have become primary locations for interaction between humans and nature. These state park properties have become vestiges of the natural environment, now managed to sustain and improve the quality of life for residents and visitors in each state.”[14] One state park, Cuyamaca Rancho State Park, in Southern California, became a basis of studying the interactions of mountain lions and humans. In the 1990s, a number of incidents were reported of mountain lions acting aggressively toward park visitors that included one fatality.  The California State Parks commissioned the Wildlife Health Center to study “…puma behavior in relation to human activity for the purpose of managing for human safety while also conserving pumas.”[15]

The mission of the California State Parks includes historic preservation and interpretation. Most notable among the historic preservation sites within the State Parks system are Sutter’s Fort in Sacramento and the string of remaining Spanish missions that witnessed early European settlement in California. An early official state expenditure for historic preservation commissioned painter William S. Jewett for a portrait of John Sutter, in 1854 one of California’s most famous pioneers. At this point Sutter’s life, his near-legendary landholdings in Northern California were being dismantled piece-meal. An historian of California’s State Parks, Joseph Engbeck described Sutter as “…in effect already an historic artifact—a rather elegant, charming, and harmless reminder of an era that had ended literally overnight with James Marshall’s discovery of gold in the tail-race of Sutter’s mill at Coloma…” James Marshall himself was honored after his death in 1885 by the Native Sons of the Golden West with the creation of the state’s first official historic landmark at Coloma, CA. In 1887, the California legislature ordered a granite monument and bronze statue of Marshall to be erected at his grave overlooking the gold discovery site at Coloma. Three years later, twenty-five acres of land surrounding the monument were donated to the state by the Native Sons and the monument was opened to the public.[16] As visitors to California’s State Parks know, history is implicit in very nature of every park in some manner.

Throughout the late Nineteenth Century, California continued to develop its historical preservation program through the State Parks. “In 1882, restoration of the Spanish mission at Carmel began as well as the finding and marking of the grave of Padre Junipero Serra, creating popular interest. The ruins of John Sutter’s fort in Sacramento, though largely ignored and neglected for many years, were very nearly razed in 1888 in order to extend a city street through the site. Again, as they had with the Gold Discovery site at Coloma, the Native Sons of the Golden West raised the funds necessary to buy and restore the fort.[17] In 1915, California created the Historical Survey Commission, which was headquartered at the University of California, Berkeley. The Historical Survey Commission was responsible for evaluating and coordinating statewide historic preservation proposals. Until 1923, the state legislature made annual appropriations until the Survey Commission was replaced by the California State Historical Association, an affiliation of historical groups from all over the state. The State Historical Association received partial funding from the state, but it was not as popular as the previous Historical Survey Commission. The State Historical Association improved communication among groups interested in California history, but under the trusteeship of the State Board of Education it emphasized research and publication, and did not develop further administrative interest in state historic landmarks.”[18]

By the late Twentieth Century, California State Parks were the primary agency for both natural and historical preservation as well as outdoor recreation. The Cameron-Unruh Beach, Park, Recreational, and Historical Facilities Bond Act of 1964 stated:

It is the responsibility of this State to provide and to encourage the provision of outdoor recreation opportunities for the citizens of California…When there is proper planning and development, open space lands contribute not only to a healthy physical and moral environment, but also contribute to the economic betterment of the State, and, therefore, it is in the public interest for the State to acquire areas for recreation, conservation, and preservation and to aid local governments of the State in acquiring and developing such areas as will contribute to the realization of the policy declared in this chapter.[19]

In 1971 legislation directed the Department of Parks and Recreation to “study the feasibility of incorporating specified coastal lands in vicinity of mouth of Ten Mile River into state park system,” the justifications of including the Ten Mile River area of coastal Mendocino County were three-fold. First, the legislation noted that the area drew “…thousands upon thousands of Californians each year…” while at the same time “…the opportunities for these Californians to savor the delights of beaches, dunes, and river estuaries are limited to those few state park properties so wisely acquired by the State of California many years ago…” The legislation noted that the opportunity was available to expand the existing MacKerricher State Park “…to a natural playground at and near the mouth of Ten Mile River, an area which includes great barren sand dunes and a vast marsh abounding with life forms which have been witlessly extirpated elsewhere in California…” In part, purchase of the Ten Mile River mouth area was an attempt to provide a haven for potentially endangered species. The 1971 legislation also directed the State Parks work with the Department of Fish and Game to include an ecological reserve within “those beach lands extending north from the existing MacKerricher State Park to the mouth of Ten Mile River, including the Ten Mile River dunes, beach, estuary, and such land and water areas lying easterly of State Highway 1 as the department finds to be necessary to protect the ecological integrity of the Ten Mile River estuarial system…”[20] Established in 1950, MacKerricher would eventually boast ten miles of coastline that included the Ten Mile River estuary, a riparian reserve, and a dune complex with intact flora illustrative of what California’s beaches and dunes once looked like.

Within the current ten mile length of the coastline of MacKerricher State Park, it is possible to witness part of the cultural history of the West’s logging industry, the history of the relationship of humans with the natural environment, the relationships within nature itself, and at the same time recreate with close access to modern facilities. An individual is still able to find moments of solitude, if desired, while able to also find a community of other visitors who appreciate the natural surroundings, reflecting the philosophies of the conservation and preservation movements of the Nineteenth Century that made the California State Parks possible.


Opie, John. Nature’s Nation: An Environmental History of the United States. Fort Worth: Harcourt Brace College Publishers, 1998.

White, Richard. It’s Your Misfortune and None of My Own: A New History of the American West. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1991.

Rawls, James J. and Walton Bean. California: An Interpretive History. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1993.

McDowall, R.M. “Biogeograpy in the life and literature of John Muir: a ceaseless search for pattern.” Journal of Biogeography 37.

Engbeck, Joseph H.. State Parks of California from 1864 to Present. C. H. Belding (1980). 17

Caneday, Lowell, Debra Jordan and Yating Liang. “Management Policy in and Typology of State Park Systems.” American Journal of Environmental Sciences vol. 5, no. 2, 2009

“Russian Gulch Park a Beauty Spot,” The Mendocino Beacon, August 18, 1934.

Sweanor, Linda L., Kenneth A. Logan, Jim W. Bauer, Blue Millsap, Walter M. Boyce. “Puma and Human Spatial and Temporal Use of a Popular California State Park.” The Journal of Wildlife Management. vol. 72, no. 5.

California Codes, Public Resources Code, Section 5096.1-5096.28

Senate Concurrent Resolution No. 59—Relative to State Parks. March 29, 1971.

Larson, Robert. Long Range Mendocino Headland and Big River Beach Feasibility Study. February 1970, State of California, Department of Parks and Recreation, State Park Planning Section, Statewide Planning Branch

Sullenberger, Martha. Dogholes and Donkey Engines: A Historical Resources Study of Six State Park System Units on the Mendocino Coast. April 1980. California Department of Parks and Recreation, Resource Preservation and Interpretation Division.

Howard, Alice Q. “Preserving the Jughandle Ecological Staircase in Mendocino County: A Tale of Grit and Determination.” Fremontia vol. 20, no. 3, July 1992

[1] John Opie. Nature’s Nation: An Environmental History of the United States. (Fort Worth: Harcourt Brace College Publishers, 1998). 370.
[2] Opie. Nature’s Nation. 374.
[3] Richard White. It’s Your Misfortune and None of My Own: A New History of the American West. (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1991), 410.
[4] Qtd in Opie. 376.
[5] James J. Rawls and Walton Bean. California: An Interpretive History. (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1993). 293.
[6] Qtd in R.M. McDowall, “Biogeograpy in the life and literature of John Muir: a ceaseless search for pattern.” Journal of Biogeography 37, 1631
[7] Joseph H. Engbeck. State Parks of California from 1864 to Present. C. H. Belding (1980). 17
[8] Lowell Caneday, Debra Jordan and Yating Liang. “Management Policy in and Typology of State Park Systems.” American Journal of Environmental Sciences 5 (2): 188, 2009
[9] Caneday, “Management Policy in and Typology of State Park Systems,” 188.
[10] “Russian Gulch Park a Beauty Spot,” The Mendocino Beacon, August 18, 1934.
[11] Caneday, “Management Policy in and Typology of State Park Systems.” 189.
[12] Qtd in Engbeck, 20.
[13] Engbeck. State Parks of California. 20
[14] Caneday. “Management Policy in and Typology of State Park Systems.” 189.
[15] Linda L. Sweanor, Kenneth A. Logan, Jim W. Bauer, Blue Millsap, Walter M. Boyce. “Puma and Human Spatial and Temporal Use of a Popular California State Park.” The Journal of Wildlife Management 72(5). 1076
[16] Engbeck. State Parks of California. 35-36.
[17] Engbeck. State Parks of California. 36
[18] Engbeck. State Parks of California. 39
[19] California Codes, Public Resources Code, Section 5096.1-5096.28
[20] Senate Concurrent Resolution No. 59—Relative to State Parks. March 29, 1971.

Noyo Beach Auto Court

Some discoveries are begun by finding a single picture. One photographic negative from the Kelley House vault reveals the passing away of Fort Bragg’s nineteenth century land history and the dawn of Fort Bragg as a modern tourist haven. The land in the photo once represented the conspicuous expression of the material success of one man, then became a destination tailored to the wealthy in the age of the automobile. Rediscovered in a collection of old negatives, the Noyo Beach Auto Camp exists only in photographic form today, but the gum trees that grew close against its fences today sway above the North Cliff Hotel.

The property was initially settled by Alexander W. McPherson, a Scottish immigrant who remained loyal to Queen Victoria. Overlooking his mill and the mouth of the Noyo River, McPherson built his eighteen room manse, the only asset he reserved as his. All other financial interests that he controlled belonged to the Noyo Mill. Unfortunately, McPherson kept all financial business away from his wife and daughter, consistent with his Old World background. When McPherson died from injuries sustained in a horse riding accident in 1879, his various interests were divided in a bitter contest between McPherson’s business partners and his heirs. In the settlement, his daughter Emily received “…the house and lot of land, 7 acres at Noyo…” while McPherson’s sons received cash compensation for their stakes. Emily McPherson’s mother had already died and Emily was ill-prepared for the financial burden of maintaining the property alone.

Emily would manage to keep the property for some time, though with some difficulty. She married John Church Bunner in 1882, in part for fiscal salvation. Bunner died in 1901 and, according to his daughter Wanda Bunner McFarland, by 1905 the property immediately surrounding the house was sold off by Emily McPherson Bunner to “…some people and they built a motor court around it…” On September 11, 1909, the Mendocino Beacon advertised the renovation of the McPherson property to a “tourist camp.” The Beacon declared that “[t]he old Bunner property at Noyo which was bought by San Francisco parties some time ago is being repaired and put in condition for tourists next summer.” The “San Francisco parties” who purchased the Bunner land were indeed far-sighted in their estimation of the coast’s value as a tourist destination. 

In 1909, the automobile was still a luxury item for an exclusive few. Tourism in the 1910s was an exclusive privilege of affluence. It was not until the 1920s that modern popular tourism with the car emerged. Thus, Alexander McPherson’s property was transformed into a commercial rather than residential estate. To be sure, the Beacon favored the venture by offering that the old McPherson land was “…an ideal spot for such, being nicely located close to the mouth of the Noyo river on a high bluff.” Mendocino County, the paper affirmed, “…has many attractive spots comparatively unknown as yet, but they are bound to come into prominence before long as the facilities they afford for camping and outdoor life are all that can be desired.” Here was the genesis of coastal MendocinoCounty’s modern automobile-dependent tourist industry.

After 1905, McPherson’s house was vacant and was torn down to build new cabins for the motor court. Some discoveries are made by finding a single picture. Within one photograph at the Kelley House lies a preserved moment in Fort Bragg’s storied land when the utility of the land changed from a Victorian entrepreneur’s symbol of personal prestige into a symbol of modern commercialism closely linked to the automobile.

This negative was one out of 300 negatives that the Kelley House received as a gift from Dot Johnson, daughter of Everett Racine, an avid photography hobbyist who chronicled twenty years of change on the Mendocino coast beginning  in the 1920s.

The Once and Future River

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