History of the Forest of Nisene Marks
At first glance, the Forest of Nisene Marks State Park may appear to be a primeval forest untouched by civilization. In reality, this area was a beehive of activity during an intensive 40 year logging frenzy (1883-1923). The estimated 140 million board feet of lumber that were removed from the forest, would, if loaded onto railroad flatcars, stretch a distance of almost 39 miles! While much evidence of the logging era has disappeared, the alert visitor can still find clues that stir the imagination and provide a window into this colorful chapter in Santa Cruz County history.
During the Mexican period of California history (1822-1848), land grants were awarded to loyal Mexican citizens, many of whom were "Californios" - Hispanic people born in California before it became a state. In 1833 Martina Castro, a Californio living near Santa Cruz, obtained a 1,668 acre land grant named Rancho Soquel. In 1844 most of the land that now constitutes the state park was awarded to Martina Castro in another land grant called the Rancho Soquel Augmentation. Consisting of 32,700 ares, it was the largest land grant in the Santa Cruz region.
Following the gold rush of 1849, California experienced a tidal wave of immigration which quadrupled the state's population by 1860. This influx of people caused an increasing demand for building products, especially lumber from the redwood tree, prized for its straight grain and durability. In search for their "red gold," the loggers focused on the Castro property in Aptos Creek Canyon, which was believed to hold some of the best strands of uncut redwood south of San Francisco.
In early 1883, the Loma Prieta Lumber Company purchased 6,485 acres from Carmel Fallon, a daughter of Martina Castro. That land, now within the current park boundary, included the coveted timber in Aptos Creek Canyon. The problem then faced by the lumber company was how to find a practical and profitable way to get their new timber to market. The best solution was to build a railroad into the steep and winding canyon, but that would require a financial outlay far beyond their means. In short order, financial backing was obtained from the Southern Pacific Railroad Company and one of the most extensive logging operations ever to take place in Santa Cruz County would soon begin.
By the summer of 1883 the Southern Pacific Railroad Company began constructing a railroad that would extend seven miles up Aptos Creek Canyon from the main line up Aptos Village. Over the next 40 years, spur lines would now be pushed up almost every canyon and more than five miles of narrow-gauge (30 inch) railroad would be built in the upper regions of the park.
During the logging era, several temporary logging camps were constructed along with one small town, Loma Prieta. Established in the mid 1880s, Loma Prieta was not a typical logging camp with ram-shackle cabins. Instead, it consisted of comfortable buildings suitable for families, and at its peak boasted a population of about 300. The Southern Pacific Railroad Company promoted the town as a tourist destination as did local newspapers. Periodicals of the day advertised Loma Prieta as "a new charming retreat for tourists, pleasure seekers, and campers." Located about 3.5 miles above Aptos Village, the town included a sawmill, railroad station, post office, Wells Fargo telegraph office, saloon, company store, a small hotel, and a one-room school house. In addition, there were houses for logging company directors and employees.
By 1923, the lumber company had pretty much exhausted the supply of old-growth redwoods. They sold off what equipment and buildings they could and abandoned the rest. Over the years, much of what has been left behind has been obscured by a tangle of bushes and vines, buried under landslides or washed away by violent winter storms. Most of the evidence from the logging era has disappeared. However, by understanding what took place here and searching for "clues," the disappearing history of the park will come alive.
There had been speculation since the turn of the century that there was oil to be found in the Santa Cruz Mountains. It was this search for black gold that prompted Herman Marks, his sister Agnes, and brother Andrew, to purchase 9,700 acres from the lumber companies (and other private property owners) from 1951-1953. However, the Marks' drilling efforts never produced a drop of oil. In 1963, through the assistance of the Nature Conservancy, the Marks family deeded 9,700 acres to the State of California in memory of their mother Nisene. With the further assistance of the Save-the-Redwood League, additional properties were purchased along lower Aptos Creek to bring the total park size to 10,036 acres.