Charles & Philena
The Camden House Love StoryStory: Betty Lease Photos: Eric Leslie
You’ve driven by it many times on the way to Weaverville or the coast. You may have glanced at the historic home on the south side of Highway 299 and said to yourself, “I’d like to stop there someday.”
You should. You really should.
In case you’re wondering, that two-story, stately white home – nine miles west of the Whiskeytown National Recreation Area Visitor Center – is the Camden House, possibly the oldest standing home in Shasta County. It started as a two-room abode, which Charles Camden built in 1852, the same year he married Philena Tower, the sister of his business partner and friend, Levi Tower, in a double ceremony on the property. Levi Tower took Mary Jane Shuffleton as his bride at the same time.
Camden, an English immigrant who arrived in New York in 1834 at age 17, eventually landed in San Francisco in 1849 and followed his gold fever to the confluence of three creeks (Clear, Willow and Mill) near what is now Whiskeytown Lake in 1850.
Over the years, the pair had a significant impact on the area. Tower built the Tower House Hotel (destroyed by fire in 1919) and planted gardens and an orchard that eventually grew to some 1,000 trees. Camden mined – getting $80,000 worth of gold – and built and operated a sawmill, fashioned a complex water ditch system and constructed a toll road that ran from Shasta to the Tower House Hotel. He was an influential entrepreneur, as well as a gentleman farmer.
“Camden was a self-made man,” says Jim Milestone, park superintendent. “He was a very successful immigrant.”
Camden and his wife had three daughters, and the house grew along with the family. More rooms were added on the ground floor, and a second story with three bedrooms completed the hip-roofed frame home. Additional structures were built on the property over the years – a summer kitchen, guest house, servants’ quarters, storage sheds, a carriage house, tenant farmhouse and barn.
The house stayed in the family until 1969, when Philena Camden Hubbard (Charles Camden’s granddaughter) sold it to the National Park Service. The home and property had fallen into disrepair and had suffered vandalism.
Milestone says the park has put more than $1 million into Camden House and the grounds, and has plans for more work costing $2 million. “Our job is to keep it standing for the next thousand years,” he says.
The house has been brought up to earthquake standards (the foundation was originally tree rounds), a footbridge constructed over Clear Creek, a parking lot added and all structures stabilized. A water tank was recently rebuilt and the orchards – which include trees that are 150 years old – are being tended and restored with the help of Redding-area arborist Rico Montenegro.
Yet it’s not nearly where Milestone wants it to be. “I’d like to bring it back to its glory of the 1890s. Our goal is to bring this all back and make it really beautiful.”
It’s a process of “baby steps,” says Clinton Kane, the recently retired park ranger for resource education. “We’re preserving the heritage for future generations.”
Although the sparsely furnished house is only open for specific programs and events, Kane says the grounds are worth exploring any time of the year.
“I would encourage people to come out in the different seasons and get different perspectives,” Kane says. Visitors can picnic, hike the trails and visit the historic El Dorado Mine and Levi Tower’s gravesite. Day use fee is $5.
In his mind’s eye, Milestone sees Camden House being used for weddings, special events, cocktail parties and more. Until that happens, however, there are numerous opportunities to visit. In the fall, the park hosts a popular Harvest Festival with apple tastings, apple picking, games, a bakeoff, tours and more. Early December offers the “Old Time Holiday” celebration at which visitors can make wreaths.
During the summer, the park offers regular “Walk in Time” programs that include a tour of Camden House. Last summer, 885 visitors participated.
Judy Bush of Redding, a retired teacher and volunteer docent who leads tours of Camden House for both adults and schoolchildren, said all ages get a thrill out of going through the house and hearing stories about the people who lived there. “I try to paint the picture of history with the stories,” she says.
Over and over, Bush says Shasta County residents tell her they’ve never been inside Camden House but have always been interested.
“The house is a mystery for many people,” she says. “They’ve seen the house for many years but never had the opportunity to go inside.
Camden House Whiskeytown National Recreation Area, Tower House Historic District nine miles west of the park’s visitor center on Highway 299, just opposite Trinity Mountain Road (to French Gulch) Visitor Center: (530) 246-1225 Open during scheduled park events