by Philip A. Lydon

January 1997

This article appears in the Park Watch Training Manual and is reproduced with the author’sĀ permission

(Sources. Information for the statements made in this document came from the minutes of the Bidwell Park and Playground Commission (BPPC). various contracts, leases, and deeds to which the City was a party, several books, pamphlets, and articles on one or both of the Bidwells. microfilms of various newspapers published in Chico, oral interviews, and a few other sources.)


John Bidwell first saw the Chico area in March 1843, by which time the place name, Chico Creek, was already in use. Under provisions of Mexican law, Arroyo Chico was granted by California Governor ManeuI Michetorena to William Dickey the following year. In two separate purchases in 1849 and 1851, Bidwell acquired Rancho del Arroyo Chico, totaling more than 22,000 acres. He filed a claim for the land before the US Lands Commission in 1852, and the claim was confirmed the next year. In further legal jockeying, the claim was confirmed by the US District Court for the Northern District in 1855, and eventually by the US Supreme Court. The title patent was signed by President James Buchanan in 1860.

Public lands surrounding the grant were surveyed in 1853-59. following the US Act of March 3. 1853, which provided for a survey of public lands in California. This survey established the system of sections, townships, and ranges that appears on modern maps (exclusive of the Mexican land grants). But it was not until 1859 that a formal survey of the boundaries of Rancho del Arroyo Chico was made and committed to a map.

John Bidwell led a varied and eventful life, serving (among other things) as Chico Postmaster, member of the US House of Representatives, and officer in the California militia. He married Annie Ellicott Kennedy in 1868. An ardent Prohibitionist, her influence appears in the no-alcohol provisions of the various Bidwell leases and grants. Bidwell died at age 81 in 1900, followed by Annie Bidwell in 1918 at 78 years of age.

Growth Of The Park

On July 10, 1905. Annie Bidwell signed a grant deed donating 1,902.88 acres to the people of Chico for a public park. She said at the time that this grant followed the desire of her late husband, expressed for some time before his death. On May 11,1911, she signed an indenture granting a further 301.76 acres of park land. mainly along the north side of Upper Park. to become effective upon her death. Approximately 37 acres were added to the Park in October 1921. when the “Forestry Station” parcel (now the site of Chico Creek Nature Center and the oak grove) was purchased from the University of California by popular subscription. Another 20 acres, the “Kennedy Estate field” (now the walnut orchard on North Park Drive), were added in the 1930s or 1940s. The City added another 1,420 acres, 40 of which were US Bureau of Land Management land, on May 16, 1995.

Reversionary Rights

Annie Bidwell’s grants of park land to the City contained several conditions, which, generalized and paraphrased, were: no alcohol; land must be used as a public park; preserve the trees. shrubs, and vines; no hunting; and no public picnics on Sundays. If these conditions were “broken or disregarded”, title to the park land would revert to her heirs. The no-alcohol provision was standard in all the Bidwell deeds, including those for investment property. Following a court decision holding that the reversionary rights are property, they were sold in 1934 to satisfy estate debts. The Title Insurance and Guaranty Co. of San Francisco purchased all the reversionary rights, which were sold as a single package. The company was interested in the investment properties, but, almost as an afterthought, thus also acquired the reversionary rights to Bidwell Park. The company deeded the Park rights, in which it was not interested, to the City by quitclaim in 1948.

Park Roads

BPPC minutes of July 1935 note that the new road through the “Upper Area” of Bidwell Park is to be graveled by SERA, the Depression-era predecessor of the WPA (Works Projects Administration). North Park Drive, considered controversial at the time of its construction, was built in 1939. The road that now forms the main access to Upper Park was rerouted in 1955 so as to pass between the golf course and the rifle range. At that time, it was called “the alternate canyon road”, and did not have an asphalt surface; the principal road access was across the Five Mile area. As part of the construction of the Five-Mile flood-control complex (1964-69). the “alternate” road became the main access route. In September 1993. the main road was rerouted near the golf course in order to allow modification of two holes of the course.

There is little information concerning the locations and condition of roads or trails predecessor to the roads described above.

Iron Canyon

Iron Canyon is the water-carved gash through black basaltic rock east of Bear Hole. The name was used in an article in the June 1888 issue of Overland Monthly, but when the name was first applied is not known. A mass of rock debris, said to have fallen about the time of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, obstructed migration of salmon and steelhead further up Big Chico Creek. One falls in that section was 14 feet high. The State Department of Fish and Game in April 1957 offered to spend $25.000 clearing the fish barrier if the City agreed to install a fishway at Sycamore Pool. The City agreed, and the project, which included building 10 dams, was completed in June of the following year.

A Flume, A Dam, A Ditch

The Butte Flume and Lumber Co. built a flume from Butte Meadows down Big Chico Creek in 1872-74. The flume crossed the creek several times, but, within the present boundaries of Bidwell Park, it remained on the southeast and south side of the canyon. Initially, the terminus of the flume was on high ground south of the creek. 3/4 to 1 mile east of the Lindo Channel junction with Big Chico Creek. The settlement of Oakvale grew there, at its peak recording 108 votes in the 1877 election. Eventually the flume was extended farther west into Chico. and the settlement faded away.

The diversion dam on Big Chico Creek, just east of Bear Hole, and its ditch were intended to deliver water to the Park reservoir (now Horseshoe Lake) for use in the municipal golf course. BPPC minutes of August 1937 note that arrangements were being made for the diversion-dam site, and that the ditch was under construction. During the following year, State approval to divert water from Big Chico Creek was obtained, but plans for the dam were still being discussed. In Spring of 1940. the local National Guard unit complained about the rising water level in “the lake feeding the golf course”, and the minutes note that the “conduit” leading from the creek to the golf reservoir is leaking. Was the diversion dam built by this time? Hard to say. On January 5,1942, the State granted an extension of time (to December 1945) for completion and use of the diversion dam.

Talk of repairing the dam appears in the minutes of 1946, and annually thereafter for some years. There was even incautious talk of “permanent” repair (1947). In 1950. a rod and gun club asked and received permission to repair the dam and ditch, but a month later abandoned the idea because the project would be too big. Sporadic discussion of the dam and ditch continued to 1957, when a water-skiing group asked permission to lay 1.5 miles of 8-inch concrete pipe in the old ditch, to bring water to the Park lake. In January 1959, the City filed an application with the State Water Rights Board to use creek water for the reservoir, an action possibly related to the water-ski project. In 1967. the minutes note that unused concrete pipe from the project is surplus. That same year. a local hiking organization received permission to build a hiking trail partly along the old ditch, which by then was probably no longer in use for carrying either water or concrete pipe.

Day Camp, Archery Range, Yahi Trail

The old day-camp and archery-range sites are situated about one-third mile east of the eastern high-power line in Upper Park. An archery target area was established by an archery club in 1946. Day Camp began when the director of the City’s Recreation Department received permission to hold a five-week, summertime “day school” in conjunction with Chico State Teachers College, in the area of the archery range. The name “Camp Cha-Da-Ka” was attached to it. In 1953, another archery group asked to develop an archery range, opposite the day camp, and in 1957 they expanded it from 14 to 28 targets. In 1967. the group asked BPPC for financial aid in maintaining the range. The site gradually declined, and was not used after about the early 1970s. In January 1967, a local hiking group received permission to build a 6-mile hiking trail, beginning at Day Camp and extending to near Salmon Hole. The gasoline crunch of the early 1970s caused relocation of Day Camp to the Five-Mile area in 1973, in order to reduce travel distances by buses and other vehicles.

Rifle Range, Golf Course, Horseshoe Lake

Rifle Range. The “rifle range” near Horseshoe Lake actually was two rifle ranges. The older one was built in 1926 for “the local military company” (July 1926 minutes). The only visible evidence of it today is the concrete-lined target pit located in a small mound just northeast of an arm of Horseshoe Lake. The firing line was located more than 400 yards to the southwest. For 6 years, the National Guard (Co. G, 184th Inf.) had an exclusive-use lease on the site. In subsequent years, the BPPC minutes reflect an increasing level of conflict over use of the range, with the National Guard wanting exclusive use and local gun groups wanting a shared-use arrangement. A skeet shooting area was established in 1936, but a permanent site, also northeast of Horseshoe Lake, was not developed until 1948. Leases to local gun clubs during the 1940s and later commonly involved both the rifle and skeet ranges. A second rifle range, for several years referred to as the “small-bore” range, was developed in 1950 just north of the gate that is used to close Upper Park during rainy weather. Sporadic use conflicts continued, and in 1958 the older, large-bore range was deactivated. The remaining rifle range was used by both military and local gun groups into the 1960s. Concrete firing stands and a metal roof were built in the 1970s. Use of the rifle range and skeet area continued to decline, however, and their last use was in the late 1980s. The wooden building next to Horseshoe Lake, used as an indoor range, was built by a local gun group over a two-year period beginning in mid-1957.

A pistol range, constructed during 1953-54. was located south of the eastern 9-hole portion of the golf course. It was built for the Chico Police Department, but was also used by various military units and law-enforcement classes from Butte Junior College. Use declined in the 1970s and was eventually discontinued.

Golf Course. Chico’s 9-hole Municipal Golf Course south of Horseshoe Lake was already established by the time first mention of it was made in the BPPC minutes (1921). A new golf-course clubhouse was built in 1925, and again in 1945 and 1952, with various repairs and modifications during the intervening years. The City turned over operation of the course to various private groups beginning in 1939. Nine more holes were constructed in an olive grove east of the old course during 1954-57. In 1993, two holes of the old course were modified, resulting in relocation of part of the road giving access to Upper Park.

Horseshoe Lake. In BPPC minutes and newspaper articles, Horseshoe Lake usually was called the Park lake, the Park reservoir, the golf-course reservoir, etc. “Horseshoe Lake” does not appear in the minutes until April 1961. In 1936, the WPA was considering building “a restraining dam near the golf links”. Late the following year, the lake is called a “reservoir” in the BPPC minutes, implying that the WPA dam was built by then. In 1939. reference appears to a dam, reservoir, and water-supply system for the golf course. In the late 1950s, a small spillway dam was constructed to better control runoff across the golf course.

The Easter Cross has been at its present site for a long time. A wooden cross was cut down by vandals and replaced by a local group in 1958. Ten years later, it was replaced by a steel cross made from a surplus light standard. Also in 1958, a local group built a dirt track east of the Easter Cross, for use in soapbox-derby contests. Increased erosion resulted in closure of the track in the 1970s.

Five-Mile Area, Hooker Oak, Live Oak Grove, Riding Arena

Five-Mile Area. The first Five-Mile dam was built on Big Chico Creek around 1859, in order to supply water to Bidwell’s flour mill. A sheep camp was located below the dam. and the shepherd’s cabin was used as a dressing room by bathers who swam in the pool behind the dam. In 1887, John Bidwell built two roofless dressing rooms at the Five-Mile pool, which were not replaced until 1922. In 1925, the BPPC adopted the name (proposed by the Chico Art Club), “Hooker Oak Swimming Pool”, for the water behind the dam. From 1964 to mid-1969, the Five-Mile area was closed to the public while the Big Chico Creek – Mud Creek flood-control project was under construction. A dam was built to replace the old structure, and picnic sites and a footbridge were built. The old road that passed into Upper Park along the north side of the present Five-Mile picnic areas was cut by excavation of a diversion channel, so a new access road into Upper Park was built north of Lindo Channel.

Hooker Oak. This famous tree was named after Sir Joseph Hooker, a renowned English botanist who examined it during a visit to the Bidwells in 1875. It was a valley oak (Quercus lobata ) located at the north end of the parking lot that forms part of the Hooker Oak Recreation Area. Its spreading branches had reached a circumference of about 500 ft and its age was widely reported as 1100 years when approximately the eastern half fell during the Columbus-Day storm of 1962. Ring counts of the largest branch to fall suggested an age of 400 years or less. Despite efforts to preserve it. the remainder of the tree fell in a windstorm in 1977.

The area around Hooker Oak, proposed in 1904 as a site for a US Plant Introduction Station, was used for many years as a hayfield and prune orchard. In 1950, a Recreation Committee (formed in 1946) relocated a softball field at Chico High School to a spot just east of Hooker Oak. CARD developed the Hooker Oak area in 1957. and in the next year began a 25-year lease from the City to operate it as a recreation area.

Live Oak Grove. This large grove of trees is located between the Five-Mile diversion channel and the Manzanita Ave. access road into Upper Park. A local midget-car racing group built a 250-ft-long track inside the Grove in 1955. Three years later, a motorcycle group received approval to build an oval racing track at the site. It was used only intermittently and, in 1966, the permit to use the track was rescinded. Before 1964, the access road into Upper Park passed through the southern part of the grove.

Riding Arena. Beginning in 1953, local horse-riding groups approached BPPC. seeking a place in the Park to build a riding arena. The present site. just west of Live Oak Grove, was selected by a riding club as early as 1958, but a temporary arena was not built for another 10 years. It fell into disuse during the 1970s, but the facilities have been rebuilt since then.

Freeway & Power Lines

Two high-voltage power lines cross Upper Park. one near the Easter Cross, and the other about a third of a mile east of the east end of the golf course. The western line was built by the US Bureau of Reclamation in 1944, and the eastern line by PG&E in 1964. Both crossed the Park, despite opposition from the BPPC, by virtue of condemnation actions. The freeway, first mentioned in BPPC minutes in 1956, was built in 1963-65. It had been opposed by formal resolution of the BPPC in 1958, and again, in response to a court action, in 1960.

Forestry Station And Kennedy Tract

(Portions of the next two paragraphs are based on tapes dictated by Janeece Webb in May 1992.)

The Forestry Station tract of land includes the present-day sites of the deer pen, Chico Creek Nature Center, and the “world of trees” grove to its west. John Bidwell, who was interested in silviculture, donated about 37 acres to the State in 1888 for use as a forestry station. The State Forestry Board began experimental plantings of exotic (non-native) trees at the Chico Forestry Station, which eventually held many thousands of trees. In 1893, title was transferred by the State to the University of California, which continued the earlier forestry work and established the still-extant grove of Spanish Oak cork trees. The City purchased the site from the University in November 1921, with funds raised by popular subscription. In succeeding decades, it was used as a Park headquarters that included maintenance, storage, and an office and home used by the Park ranger or Park superintendent.

Just east of the present building of the Chico Creek Nature Center is a large wood barn, said to have been used for storage by John Bidwell. A small zoo was maintained near the barn from 1954 to 1958. The deer pens were already on the site. having been started some years before. The small “rock house” adjacent to the Center on its south was constructed around 1980. and used as a museum and nature center. The Chico Creek Nature Center building was erected 10 years later. Public interest in a nature trail among plantings of the old forestry station first appears in the BPPC minutes of 1963. but the “world of trees” nature trail was not established until 1976.

Approximately 20 acres at the present site of the walnut orchard along North Park Drive were owned by the Kennedys, relatives of Annie Bidwell. It became part of the Park before 1950, probably in the late 1930s or 1940s. The present-day walnut trees were planted in 1953.

One-Mile Area

The dam that backs water for the “4th Street” swimming pool was built in 1923 and 1924. The next year. the BPPC agreed that the choice of a name for the 4th Street and Five-Mile pools should be left to the Chico Art Club. The Club proposed and BPPC adopted “Sycamore” and “Hooker Oak” Swimming Pools as the formal names. The Sycamore Pool fish ladder was built in 1957 as part of an agreement by the State to clear an obstruction to fish migration in Iron Canyon. Caper Acres, built by volunteers and donated materials, was developed in the 1950s.

Proposals Made That Never Happened

Most of the types of use that took place in the Park left evidence of their existence. No trace remains, however, of an impressive array of uses that were proposed but that, for one reason or another, never happened. A chronological list of some of these, taken from the BPPC minutes of 1918-1960, follows.

  • 1918 An automobile campground near the Esplanade.
  • 1918 A 20-acre fish hatchery.
  • 1921 An aeroplane field near the golf course.
  • 1926 Aeroplane field proposed again.
  • 1932 Polo field in Upper Park.
  • 1933 Winter-camp CCC building and site east of golf course.
  • 1936 A stadium in Park; location not given.
  • 1940 Campground for boys at upper end of Park.
  • 1947 Improvements for 100-acre radar bombing site, plus 25-year lease.
  • 1951 Develop unspecified area in Park for use of model-plane flying club .
  • 1953 1.6 acres for fire station in Upper Park, plus 30-yr lease.
  • 1955 Asphalt batch plant on 80 x 700 ft parcel in Undo Channel north of Hooker Oak.
  • 1955 (& 1956) Automobile bridge over Big Chico Creek above Day Camp, for private access south of Park.
  • 1956 New large-bore rifle range for military group, with 10-year exclusive-use lease.
  • 1959 Large dam on Big Chico Creek in Upper Park.
  • 1959 Six “flying circles” in lower Park, each 140 ft across, for flying model planes.