The Santa Clara Tree

How Andrew P. Hill and Robert Kenna, S.J. helped preserve the California redwoods.

Coast redwoods are among the wonders of the natural world. Alas, by the end of the 19th century, most of Sequoia sempervirens  in the Santa Cruz Mountains had been felled for timber. But saws and axes spared some giants thanks in part to lifetime friends and Santa Clara classmates: photographer Andrew P. Hill and college president Robert Kenna, S.J.


Photo courtesy of History San Jose.

In 1899, artist and photographer Andrew P. Hill is commissioned to photograph the giant redwoods of the Santa Cruz Mountains for a London magazine story. Awed by the trees, he launches a campaign to save the ancient forests from logging. He reaches out to the President of Santa Clara College, Fr. Robert Kenna, for help.


Photo courtesy of SCU archives.

In 1901, Andrew Hill, Fr. Kenna, and other local leaders in education, politics, and journalism convince the California Legislature to pass a bill allowing for the creation of the park and protection of coast redwoods for the first time.


Photo courtesy of History San Jose.

Students at Santa Clara start a new monthly literary magazine in November 1902. It publishes national news, campus updates and events, poetry, stories, and essays. The name pays tribute to the college’s role in saving the redwoods. After the launch of The Santa Clara newspaper in 1920, The Redwood evolves into the yearbook. Pictured: the 1962 Diamond Jubilee edition.


In 1900, this becomes the motto of the new Sempervirens Club—established on the banks of Sempervirens Creek by Hill and Carrie Stevens Walter. They are part of a surveying committee, camping in what is now Big Basin State Park. They pass a hat and collect $32. Later the club becomes the Sempervirens Fund, California’s oldest land trust.


Photo courtesy of History San Jose.

Thanks in part to the efforts of the Sempervirens Club—led by Hill—the state acquires 3,800 acres (later 10,000 acres) of oldgrowth redwood forest, creating the park (first named California Redwood Park). Kenna serves as a park commissioner. These are some of the the tallest trees in the world, with a lifespan of more than 2,000 years. At an estimated 1,300–1,500 years, the Santa Clara Tree is one of the oldest in the park. It used to be nigh the tallest tree in Big Basin, too, but the 1906 earthquake broke 60 to 80 feet off the top. Current height: about 240 feet.


Photo courtesy of SCU archives.

In honor of Santa Clara’s efforts to form the park, a giant redwood is dedicated to the college—“proudest member of that proud forest.” In the 1905 photo to the right, Fr. Kenna stands with walking stick in hand and wearing a wide-brimmed hat; Hill is the one on his right, with the mustache and narrow-brimmed hat.

post-image Nearly 18 feet in diameter. Almost 66 feet in circumference. View full image.