Up The Road: Into Big Meadows With The Bidwells

Aug 30, 2017

We head up the road this week to summer with John and Annie Ellicott Kennedy Bidwell. As anyone who has survived a Chico summer without air conditioning can attest, it’s just plain crazy to stay put when there are big, cool mountains so close by. Native people certainly had more sense. In summer they would migrate into the foothills and mountains, following wildlife—also very sensible—and enjoying berries, tubers, and other summer edibles as they ripened. Come fall, when the days cooled, they’d head back toward the valley—just in time for the annual acorn gathering, with ample time before winter to gather and store acorns, a dietary staple.

The Bidwells wore “summer whites,” to stay as cool as possible, when they had to be in the valley. But otherwise they high-tailed it to Big Meadows, just south of Lassen Peak, for long stretches of the summer—a trip that, by horseback or wagon, took quite a long time. They lived in tents and got out and about as much as possible, sleeping deeply under that big starry sky thanks to the crisp, cool, mountain air. Most of Big Meadows has since been inundated by Lake Almanor, still a popular summer destination.

Annie Bidwell at Robin’s Nest, 1910
Credit Photo used with the permission of California State University, Chico, Meriam Library Special Collections

John Bidwell helped organize early scientific explorations of Shasta and Lassen for the September 1877 trip with John Muir and botanists Asa Gray and Sir Joseph Hooker. On this and other trips the Bidwells thoroughly familiarized themselves with the lay of the Lassen landscape. If they didn’t visit they—or at least Annie— surely knew about Drakesbad, now a rustic guest ranch in Lassen Volcanic National Park’s Warner Valley. (Sidenote: Did you know that in the early 1900s the Lassen area was proposed as Bidwell National Park?) Named for eccentric trapper and guide Edward Drake, who claimed to be a descendant of Sir Francis, Drake and his sheep lived alone there for 15 years. The Sifford family bought the land in 1900 and opened Drake’s Hot Springs and Ranch—soon shortened to “Drake’s baths” or Drakesbad—as a family resort that catered mostly to San Franciscans, promoted for the health-giving properties of the springs. You can hike in—it’s downhill all the way from several park trails—but Drakesbad is accessible by car only from Chester. Great place, serving good food and rustic atmosphere, down to the kerosene lamps in the guestrooms.

Horse and buggy in the hills outside Chico.
Credit From Annie Bidwell’s photo album. Used with the permission of California State University, Chico, Meriam Library Special Collections

But you can follow the Bidwells mountain footsteps in Chester proper, where Annie Bidwell’s summer cottage is now located and operating as Bidwell House Inn, a cozy bed and breakfast on the edge of town.

After John Bidwell died in 1900, Annie starting thinking about building a summer house at a place near Big Meadows she and her sister Sallie called Robin’s Nest, a forested area with several springs a few miles from Prattville. So in June of 1904 a caravan of supply wagons started up Humboldt Road for Big Meadows, so the work crew would have time to at least get the exterior walls finished and roof on before winter returned. But the 10-room “cottage” was all but finished by September 22, when the crew returned to Chico. By 1911, Annie Bidwell was changing direction again, ready to give up not only Robin’s Nest but also most of what remained of the ranch.