Up The Road: Annie Bidwell's Park

Sep 7, 2017

We head up the road this week to look more closely at the legacy of Annie Ellicott Kennedy Bidwell—including the spectacular city park that bears the family name.

Boy Scout Island in Bidwell Park, 1900
Credit Photo used with the permission of California State University, Chico, Meriam Library Special Collections

Just picture the scene, a hot evening in July 1905. Assembled on the front lawn of Bidwell Mansion were local citizens and dignitaries, Annie, and Annie’s special guest, women’s rights activist Susan B. Anthony—here, as everywhere she went, advocating for women’s education and fighting on for the right to vote, still 15 years away on the national level. Anthony, in need of a rest, was a woman of few words on that particular night. But Annie had carefully prepared a speech:

“From the first years of my residence on Rancho Chico a sadness has at times oppressed me as the thought has been borne in on me that someday the beloved Chico Creek would be destroyed by the diverting of its waters and the slaughter of its trees.”

And so she was inspired to give what we now know as Bidwell Park—a foothill canyon and meandering valley creek—to Chico and its people, an urban refuge for wildlife and native plants, to be preserved for all time, a gift “of which I believe you will prove yourselves worthy, teaching your children also, to hold it in sacred trust.”

Bidwell Park at One Mile, 1930, with docks
Credit Photo used with the permission of California State University, Chico, Meriam Library Special Collections

Hollywood was certainly appreciative. Warner Brothers realized that the thick oaks and tangled creekside setting were perfect for the classic 1937 film Robin Hood. Not to mention the Hooker Oak, a majestic valley oak believed to be 1,000 years old and named after famed British botanist Sir Joseph Hooker, who declared it the world's largest. (Hooker Oak was felled by a 1977 spring storm, which revealed that the tree was actually two fused together and “only” a few centuries old.) Most backdrops for 1939’s Gone with the Wind were filmed in Bidwell Park too.

Photo on the set of Robin Hood, Bidwell Park, 1937
Credit Photo used with the permission of California State University, Chico, Meriam Library Special Collections

Now some 3600 acres total due to later additions to Upper Park, Bidwell Park is a much-loved regional park—one that’s free for cyclists, hikers, swimmers, picnickers. Locals have added all sorts of “improvements” over the years, from roads, bridges, and dams to playgrounds, baseball diamonds, and golf course, but many have also disappeared, including campgrounds, wartime battlements, an outdoor shooting range, and a downhill go-cart course. My favorite was the rather thoughtless gravel creek crossing at Five Mile, which I remember from childhood. In the 1950s you could drive right across the creek in summer and, with the car windows down, just lean out and dip your hands into the water. How cool was that? But despite our human need to improve on and otherwise mess with nature, most of the Bidwells’ park is still natural and relatively untouched. That’s cooler than anything.

Explore the Bidwells’ home too, right downtown. This elegant three-story Victorian was designed in the style of an Italian villa by Henry W. Cleveland (later architect of San Francisco's Palace Hotel) yet boasted every newfangled technology, including the first indoor bathroom ever installed in California. The huge ballroom signaled that this was the center of Northern California society. What no one could know—including the Bidwells, when they moved in—was that their home would also become the center of so much “secret” family joy and grief. More on that next time.