The town of Felton was laid out in 1868 on the Zayante Rancho, once the site of a native village. Before the Mexican War, the area was populated by mountain men, who built one of California’s earliest distilleries and its first water-powered saw mill.
Isaac Graham purchased the Rancho but the government contested his claim until 1862. During the ’50’s, prospectors found gold here and picnic parties discovered the Big Tree redwood grove. When Graham died, he owed $20,000 to his lawyer, Edward Stanly, who took the Zayante Rancho as payment.
Stanly hoped to make Felton a stop on a transcontinental railroad. The new town was named for his nephew-in-law, John B. Felton, mayor of Oakland and a founder of the University of California. Due to lawsuits and corporate takeovers, construction of the railroad from Santa Cruz was delayed until 1875.
For a decade the town boomed. Millions of feet of lumber came down the San Lorenzo flume and thousands of barrels of lime, manufactured in the local hills, were shipped. When a second railroad took over the first one and planned an extension to Boulder Creek, the townspeople refused to let the tracks run along Main Street, and Felton was by-passed. As the natural resources of the valley were used up, the town remained a popular camping destination.
Conveniently located near local wineries and the sea shore, the San Lorenzo Valley prospered during Prohibition. Felton’s Wild West look made it an attractive location for early movies and several Hollywood stars built summer homes here.
Despite fires is 1888, 1896, 1917, and 1946, a number of historic buildings survive, including the two-story Creamer Hotel (1875), Alcazar Hall (1891), as well as the Covered Bridge and Presbyterian Church of 1893 (now the public library). The Big Tree Grove, incorporated into the Cowell State Park in 1954, and the Roaring Camp Narrow Gauge Railroad continue to attract the attention of visitors.
For more information about the history of Felton and the San Lorenzo Valley, please visit the San Lorenzo Valley Museum and the UCSC Library Online.