He saved the Redwoods

As told by Leonard McKay, who provided information for “Good & Ancient
Forest”, the story of Andrew P. Hill by Carolyn De Vries.


Have you ever been in Big Basin Park and stood under a giant redwood, the tallest living tree, and wondered how and why they are still here? Let me tell you the story of the man who saved the redwoods.

Twenty-three years ago, Carolyn De Vries, a friend who was a graduate history student came to me asking for a suggestion as to whom to write about for her master’s thesis. Without hesitation I suggested the name of a man who I felt has not been properly recognized. This led to the publication of her excellent book, “Grand and Ancient Forest.”

A school has been named for him, one of his paintings hang in the City Council Chambers, another major painting hung in the Assembly Chambers of the State Capitol Building in Sacramento and yet none of his work is displayed in any of the San Jose art galleries!

Last year, a man came into our shop and without saying a word opened his brief case and laid out $10,000 in nice, new, crisp $100 bills and advised me that he wanted my painting of the redwoods for sale at Memorabilia. I asked him what he was going to do with it and he said he had a buyer on the East Coast. I told him that if the painting was to leave San Jose, it was not for sale at any price! The artist who did this painting was Andrew Putnam Hill.

When Hill was 14 years old, he came overland to California in 1867, just before the transcontinental 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, and while Elijah survived the fight he died a week later of exposure and exhaustion. Andrew came West later with his uncle and after arrival he attended the small College of Santa Clara, first as a high school student and then as a college freshman. Although a Protestant, Andrew made many Catholic friends at Santa Clara who were to greatly assist him in later years. When his funds ran out, he left to work to support himself, first as a draftsman and later, after attending the California School of Design, a painter of portraits.

Perfecting his natural artistic talent, 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 to feed his growing family, he took up photography as painting was in an economic decline.


In 1899, a major fire erupted in the redwood forest 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 these trees. They commissioned Hill for more pictures of just the redwoods. These trees are the Sequoia Sempervirens, the tallest trees in the world, with a life span of over 2000 years. Oh, yes, someone is going to correct me and say that the Sequoia Gigantia are bigger. Yes, they contain more board feet of timber, but the Sempervirens are the tallest.

On assignment, Hill took his bulky camera to the Santa Cruz grove, which we know today as Big Trees Grove near Felton. The grove was then in private ownership and Hill shot many pictures of the trees when 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 he determined to do something about saving the redwoods, as he saw that almost all of the virgin trees had been cut for lumber. Infuriated, he started his crusade to save the redwoods. It was suggested that the trees in Big Basin were larger and more important than the Big Trees Grove, so in 1900 an investigative party of leading and concerned citizens explored Big Basin. They were so impressed that they vowed to save these trees.

A long hard battle ensued; Hill had help from many quarters; the President Jordan and faculty members of Stanford University, Santa Clara College’s President, Father Kenna, S.J., James Phelan, who was mayor of San Francisco, and later, State Senator, and most particularly, Carrie Stevens Walter. She became the first secretary of the Sempervirens Society, and participated in all of the battles. Had the trees not been saved at that very time, it was estimated that in six months there would not be any virgin trees remaining in that whole area.

Hill’s campaign led him to the State legislature in Sacramento and, after many months of negotiation, it came to a final vote. The preliminary indications were that the State would not approve the expenditure of $250,000. Hill received a guarantee of $50,000 from Fr. Kenna’s nephew, James Phelan; this was to be a guarantee to the lumber companies owners, forfeitable if the State did not purchase the property. At midnight, just before the vote was to be taken, Hill walked three miles from Santa Clara, as the street cars had already stopped for the night, to the Herald newspaper offices in San Jose, where the editor, Harry Wells, had a special edition published. Hill waited for the papers to be printed and boarded the 4:30 a.m. train for Sacramento with the papers under his arm. A copy was placed on each legislator’s desk. The bill passed unanimously and, thus, California got its first State park, California Redwood Park. Private citizens matched the State’s $250,000. Today, it is known as Big Basin Redwoods State Park.

Hill’s paintings may be seen at the Orradre Library of the University of Santa Clara, at Andrew Hill High School, in the City Council Chambers, at the Historic Museum, but rarely in any San Jose art galleries. The painting of giant redwoods on the wall of Memorabilia was painted for the 1915 Panama Pacific Exposition in San Francisco. As a tribute to the woman and poetess who worked so tirelessly beside him, he painted her into the right foreground, although Carrie Stevens Walter had died eight years earlier.

When Hill died in 1922, he left his family an estate valued at less than $900. However, he left all of us a legacy that is immeasurable, the wonderful giant redwoods that were born before Christ.

Donations for the Andrew P. Hill house would be greatly appreciated. If you have items that we could use for either the renovation, furnishings or items relating to Andrew P. Hill, please contact us at the address below. Of course monetary donations would be just as welcome as would donation of your time to help restore this important piece of San Jose history. All donations are tax deductible.