Annie Bidwell's Gift Continues To Bring Enjoyment to Those Who Visit
By Al Rocca
The Jewel of Chico
Story by Al Rocca
Photos by Sunshine Rush
CERTAINLY, one of the many highlights of the Chico area is beautiful Bidwell Park. Annie Bidwell (widow of Chico’s founder, John Bidwell) donated to the city of Chico in the early 1900s nearly 2,500 acres of land west of Manzanita Avenue along Big Chico Creek. Within a few years, a municipal park was created. Annie donated more land in 1911 and the park began to grow, with city officials acquiring additional acreage. By the mid-1930s, Bidwell was already the fourth-largest municipal park in the country. With an eye to the future, city residents in 1995 urged lawmakers to approve the acquisition of 1,400 acres, stretching east to the foothills. Today, the park, following Big Chico Creek upstream to the east, runs from the Bidwell Mansion area, known as Lower Bidwell Park, to the foothills, called Upper Bidwell Park. Bidwell Park is now the second-largest city park in the United States.
How did it all start? What motivated the Bidwells to donate so much land to the city of Chico? An editorial in the Chico Record newspaper dated July 1, 1905 provides an answer:
The land embodied in this proposed property has been a part of the Bidwell estate since the early days, is a part of the original grant, and some of it is as fertile as the valley of the Nile. The sentiment that prompted General and Mrs. Bidwell to preserve the natural beauty of this immense tract along Chico Creek; to spend thousands of dollars in the protection of the young oaks and vines and the building of roadways and pathways over the hundreds of acres, which others would have cleared and farmed for profit, is the same sentiment that prompts Mrs. Bidwell to welcome the time when she can execute a deed to this property to the City of Chico and feel assured that this beautiful hand work of nature will be preserved for the enjoyment and betterment of humanity.
The writer noted the fact that Annie Bidwell put no restrictions or special “conditions” on the transfer of land. A couple of weeks later at a public meeting to officially accept the land, a city representative, J.D. Sproul, praised John and Annie Bidwell. He declared the city’s commitment to maintain and preserve the beautiful landscape. He stated:
And now you say to us, that none shall take it from us; that when your temporal control shall cease, we and all the countless hosts that shall come after us, shall retain therein dominion and control forever; that this one spot shall be preserved to nature inviolate and through all time. In love of you, in love and memory of him (John Bidwell), we take this sacred trust to have and to hold inviolate so long as time may run. (Chico Record, July 18, 1905)
Annie Bidwell responded to Sproul by reminding everyone of the potential danger of growth and development in that area of town. She recalled:
From the first years of my residence on Rancho Chico, a sadness has at times oppressed me as the thought has been borne on me that some day the beautiful, beloved, Chico Creek would be destroyed by the diversion of its waters and the slaughter of its trees. More recently my prayer has been that these fears be laid aside, and God who made the Creek and blest us with its custody be trusted to preserve when my power to do so shall have ceased; then it was given me to see a way by which it might be saved. (Chico Record, July 18, 1905)
Annie’s dream of preserving the creek and the land on both sides grew as the town expanded and she wanted all people in the city and surrounding region to enjoy the coolness of the creek and the dense canopy of trees that provide much-needed shade in the North State’s hot summers. She famously declared, “A panorama of the past moved before me, followed by one of the future when little children, young men and maidens, men and women of all ages; the sad, the discouraged, the happy, should enjoy this garden of God, because He had bestowed upon me the power and wisdom to preserve it.”
The next time you visit Chico make sure to take time to include Bidwell Park as part of your day. It is big and it is beautiful: it is the “Jewel of Chico.” Enjoy! •