The park that never was
And probably shouldn’t have been…
If you stand at just the right spot on Middle Trail in Upper Park, with the North Rim trail above you and Horseshoe Lake to the east, you can still see a faint outline of a road that inexplicably heads straight down the hillside and then abruptly disappears in the middle of an overgrown meadow. There’s no marker, no sign—just a trail that shouldn’t be there and some ancient crumbling asphalt hidden beneath the grass.
Just one of the dozens of cockamamie projects built in Bidwell Park that didn’t survive to the present day, this is the spot where kids used to launch homemade soapbox derby cars down a very steep and very short course, sending them flying through narrow passes between trees and rocks and into the meadow below. Built around 1958 and abandoned 10 or 12 years later, the course probably provided as many broken limbs as happy memories. Local historian David Nopel remembers it like it was yesterday.
“I was about 12 years old, and one of my best friends had made one of these cars,” he said during a recent walk through the park, on which we tried to find some of the park projects that never were. But about halfway down the hill, one of the teenage racers went out of control, flipped over twice and landed upside down. “That image is frozen in my mind,” Nopel said. “It wasn’t long after that they discontinued [the races]. I guess they figured out it wasn’t the safest thing to be doing out there.”
A look back over city records reveals scores of projects that were proposed for the park that someone eventually thought better of, either before or after they were built. They seem to come in packs, with each project reflecting the social climate and favored diversions of the era they were proposed in.
In the early days of the park, between Annie Bidwell’s death in 1918 and the outbreak of World War II, construction was slow and steady, with the golf course, rifle range and forestry station being the major projects. But the park might have looked a lot different had the proponents of an airfield—to be located north of what is now the main entrance to Upper Park—won out. In 1921 and again in 1926, local aviation boosters tried to get the city to endorse the airstrip and lost. Thankfully for the park, they gave up on the idea and settled for the present-day airport site, which was built as a federal public works project in 1933.
A less intensive but no less goofy idea for a polo field in Upper Park, possibly near where the observatory is now, was also floated in 1932. (Who was playing polo in the middle of the depression in Chico?) As with many of the proposals, there is almost no way of knowing where the field would have been, who proposed it or why it was turned down. Phil Lydon, who has spent months poring over Park Commission meeting minutes going back to the very inception of the park, marvels at how “deliciously vague” many of the ideas sound now.
“At some point they started using a typewriter, but up until then [the minutes were] written in this beautiful, spidery, Victorian script,” Lydon said. “Can you imagine, all those minutes all the way up to today, and not one map anywhere?”
Even now, park maps provided by the city are primitive and seem to be missing some of the park’s main attractions. It wasn’t until the late 1990s that anyone tried to map the trails of Upper Park, many of which are unauthorized and poorly graded.
Probably the most godawful use ever suggested for the park was the “radar bombing range” proposed by the newly formed U.S. Air Force in 1947. Since the Army Air Corps spent millions modernizing the airport, they may have figured the city owed them enough to let them blow Annie’s beloved tract to smithereens. Somehow, the city fathers found the courage to say no. Today, the only spent munitions one has to worry about in the park are from the three shooting ranges—four if you count arrows from the archery range—that the park has been host to. The last remaining one, run by the Chico Rod and Gun Club, was moved indoors in the early 1990s. The cleanup of lead from spent rounds and the toxic glue from skeet targets is still underway.
Through the years, planning new projects at the park has been a strange and haphazard process in which folks with a particular hobby or interest come forward and propose various things, and whoever has the most clout or can speak the loudest wins out.
“It’s really one of the most interesting ways to look at the park,” Nopel noted. “There’s been a continual wrestling match that has gone on between supporters of preservation of open spaces and people’s recreation.”
One of the reasons for the uneven approach is undoubtedly because the park, as large as it is, has always been run by the tiny city of Chico, in contrast to some state or federal parks of roughly the same size. Or, one could compare it to the complexities of planning and operating, say, Central Park in New York City, if the Big Apple had been forced to operate on a budget the size of Chico’s.
One thing both Central Park and Bidwell Park have in common is that they both kept small zoos (Chico’s opened in 1954 and closed four years later due to complaints about the smell and the inhumane conditions). But one thing Bidwell had over Central Park was a speedway running through its center. In the mid-1950s, a time when postwar prosperity and love of internal combustion was sweeping the country, the city allowed a midget car club to build a 250-foot track near the Five-Mile Recreation Area, in what is now a gorgeous, sprawling field of oaks, wildflowers and meadow grasses.
Hiking through the area on a spring day, it’s hard to imagine the mindset of anyone who would trade such serenity for a flat band of asphalt and the stench of gasoline. But motor sports have always had a controversial place in Upper Park. In the 1960s, just as car companies were coming out with the first consumer-oriented off-road vehicles, local auto dealers used to take potential customers into the park to show off their latest models. Well into the 1970s, off-roaders were allowed to push their vehicles up and down the slopes of Upper Bidwell, until those darned environmentalists ruined it for everyone.
That’s how it goes in the park—or at least how it has gone for most of the park’s 100-year history. Someday, someone’s going start a hovercraft club or a drilling-to-the-center-of-the-earth club, and where do you guess they’ll want to build their facilities? Hopefully, by then they’ll at least have to provide a map with their proposal.