South Coast State Parks: The Early History Of The Butano

Thanks to Mike Merritt, Butano State Park Seasonal Interpreter, for emailing the breathtaking park’s early history.

Email Mike ([email protected])

Butano Area History

Early Pioneer Settlement

Following the Gold Rush, large numbers of Americans began arriving in California. In 1850, California became a state, and thousands of acres of rancho property began to be turned over to American citizens. As a result there was in the coming years a wholesale turnover of rancho lands to American interests, including the ranchos of the coast. Many of the large ranchos were purchased by wealthy European Americans. In 1851, Isaac Graham of Santa Cruz acquired the Rancho Punta de Ano Nuevo from the Castro heirs, encompassing all of what would become Butano SP. Graham had been an American trapper on the frontier, and was a prominent pioneer. For a time, he had been imprisoned in Mexico for alleged acts of insurrection. His release included an indemnity, with which he purchased the Rancho.(Steele, Catharine B. The Steeles of Point Ano Nuevo,). Although he did not live on the rancho, he leased much of the land out for cattle ranching. Because of financial troubles, Graham was unable to hold onto the property, and it was sold at public auction in 1862 to John H. Baird, for $20,000. Baird quickly sold the property to Loren Coburn for $30,000. Coburn purchased both the Rancho Butano and Rancho Punta de Ano with his brother-in-law Jeremiah Clark. After buying out Clark, Coburn leased much of the land to a northern California family dairy enterprise by the name of Steele.


The Steeles had arrived in California from Ohio beginning in the mid-1850’s, operating several dairies in Sonoma County. They soon began to make cheese, which was eagerly awaited in San Francisco. By 1857, George, Isaac, Edgar, and Rensselaer Steele leased land in Marin County. Demand for their cheese caused the Steeles to expand their herd and seek out new country. Beginning in 1862, the Steeles leased 17,763 acres of the Ano Nuevo rancho from Coburn. The lease was for $6,000 per year for ten years plus all taxes on the rancho. A stipulation allowed for the Steeles to buy 7,000 acres of the ranch south of Gazos Creek when the lease expired, at $6 per acre. The Steeles exercised the option to buy the 7,000 acres, while Coburn retained the northern portion of the rancho (Steele 1948:10). Edgar Steele built the Cloverdale Dairy, which used to stand along present day Cloverdale Rd.


Meanwhile, lumbering had also become a prominent economic activity in this region. As settlements south of San Francisco grew, the redwood trees prevalent in the Santa Cruz Mountains were exploited for their commercial use. While the eastern slopes up to the summit were harvested beginning in the 1850’s, the coast side areas were further from shipping points, markets, and transportation facilities, making logging operations difficult. By the 1870’s, the accessible timber on the eastern slope had been largely harvested. Logging then focused on the coast side watersheds of the Purissima, Tunitas, San Gregorio, Pescadero, and Gazos creeks. Most local creeks dried up in the summer, requiring steam powered-mills for effective logging operations. Small shingle mills were often set up in small, remote canyons where oxen teams could not reach. Transporting the lumber to market proved extremely difficult, and expensive. With no deep water port on the nearby coast, shipping the lumber from the few small wharfs (Waddell’s Gordon’s Chute at Tunitas, Pigeon Point) was generally not cost effective. Prices of lumber also varied widely, based upon changing demand as the result of fires or other disasters. These price fluctuations frequently put small operations out of business (Hynding 1982). Nevertheless, several mills were established on the coast side of the mountains beginning in 1867, and some businesses thrived for a time.

The focus of most early lumbering in the area appears to have been along Gazos Creek. The Birch and Steen shingle mill was located approximately ½ mile west of the confluence of Bear Creek and Gazos Creek, and about five miles from the ocean. It was eventually sold to Horace Templeton who moved the mill upstream, began milling lumber, and organized the Pacific Lumber and Mill Company. Lumber was floated down a flume to the intersection of Cloverdale Road and Gazos Creek Road where it was hauled to Pigeon Point for shipping. Despite a promising beginning, the mill closed following the death of Templeton in 1873. The nationwide Panic of 1873 put several other mills in the Santa Cruz Mountains out of business. It would be several years before business would begin to pick up again. In 1882, James McKinley (brother of the future president) reactivated the Pacific Lumber mill, and soon was supplying the increasingly powerful and expanding Southern Pacific Railroad. The mill was renamed the “McKinley Mill” (Stanger 1967). Business continued to ebb and flow based upon the larger national, regional, and local economies.

During this period, the lands that would make up Butano SP were owned by logging companies, and were extensively logged. Several mills were built on Gazos Creek, as well as other locations (such as on Big Butano and Little Butano creeks).

By the early 1860’s, the small town of Pescadero had emerged along this portion of the San Mateo Coast, and was soon served by several stage lines. Aside from Half Moon Bay, Pescadero was the only other town of any size during this period. By 1868, in fact, Pescadero had become the fourth largest town in the county (having just been annexed by San Mateo County that year). The town thrived as a result of it being a transportation hub for adjacent farms and lumber mills. Stages ran from Redwood City over the mountains via Searsville and La Honda to Pescadero. During periods of bad weather, mail and passenger stages were routed through Boulder Creek, passing through what is now Butano SP. The route followed those used by Native Americans, along the ridgelines along Little Butano and Gazos. These routes were used until the 1880’s and still retain roads today, largely following the ridgelines through park property.


Though most of the Santa Cruz Mountains were too rugged to be suitable for homesteading, the canyon of Little Butano Creek was one notable exception. There are several areas of flat open spades that allowed for limited farming and ranching. The most pronounced of these consist of Little Butano Flats (at the entrance to the current park), Jackson Flats immediately below the north ridge, and Goat Hill on the south ridge. One of the first to arrive was William Jackson and his wife Isabella, who filed on three separate 160 acre parcels of land in 1861. Jackson built a small house in the heart of his property, on the north side of the canyon. The area in which they settle became known as Jackson Flats. Jackson eventually acquired a total of 400 acres and had four children, Mary, William, Fannie, and Thomas.

E.P. Mullen homesteaded on the south side of little Butano canyon in the early 1860s. Mullen established a goat ranch on the property, giving the name to Goat Hill. Mullen’s daughter continued to live on the ranch with her husband, William M. Taylor. The Taylors remained until the late 1800’s.

In 1873, Taylor built a shingle mill on the south bank of Little Butano Creek. Partnering with William Jackson, the two operated the mill for almost 10 years. By the 1880’s, Sheldon “Purdy” Pharis had purchased property in the upper Little Butano basin. Known as the “shingle king”, Pharis built one of the first shingle mills in the Santa Cruz Mountains in 1863, and apparently operated as many as 7 mills. Pharis purchased the Taylor mill, along with many others in the area. In 1885, however, Pharis committed suicide, and the mill ceased operation.

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