Marsh Creek State Park (California)

Marsh Creek State Park, located in East Contra Costa County, California, was named as the newest California State Park in California on January 27, 2012. The newly named park (formerly called the Cowell Ranch/John Marsh State Park) contains 3,659 acres (1,481 ha) and is about 3.3 miles (5.3 km) south of downtown Brentwood. It is not open to the public as of January 2015. No opening date has been announced.

The park honors California pioneer John Marsh (1799–1856), who was a doctor, rancher, landowner and the first non-Hispanic European to settle in what is now Contra Costa County, California. Marsh was the first medical doctor in California, the first Harvard graduate in the territory, the first to introduce a number of new crops, and one of the most influential men in the establishment of California statehood.

Marsh, a widower, was a native of Massachusetts, who had previously lived in Minnesota, Illinois, Wisconsin, Missouri and New Mexico before settling in Los Angeles, California. In 1838, he acquired Rancho Los Meganos in northern California. The ranch covered over 80 square miles (21,000 ha), and extended over 8 miles (13 km) to the San Joaquin River, where Marsh’s Landing was built (near present-day Antioch California). The park covers a portion of this former rancho. Marsh reportedly paid $300 in cowhides for the land. The John Marsh House was added to the National Register of Historic Places (Reference Number 71000136) under Criteria A, B and C on October 7, 1971.

Archaeologists have found that Native Americans lived in the East Contra Costa County area at least 7,000 years ago. Some of the groups identified with the area are the Volvone and the Miwoks. Excavations have turned up human remains and other historical items that confirm this. Some burial sites have been identified. The park planners intend to protect these cultural sites that lie within the park boundaries.

A highlight of the park is the home of John Marsh, which was begun in 1853 and completed in 1856, and which has been undergoing extensive renovation for several years. Initially, Marsh lived in a four-room adobe house which had been built on the property for him by local Miwok Indians. Marsh apparently got along well with the Miwoks and had even provided them with free medical care. In return, the tribesmen built the adobe house. After he remarried in 1851, he retained San Francisco architect Thomas Boyd to design a grand new mansion. Many of the features apparently were stipulated by Marsh himself. John’s wife, Abby, had selected the site for the house along Marsh Creek. The new Gothic Revival style house was three stories high and had an observation tower that rose 65 feet (20 m) into the air. Marsh built the tower so that he could see the approach of strangers from a great distance. Rustlers and marauders frequently came to his ranch to steal cattle or steal other valuables. However, the stone tower proved vulnerable to earthquakes. The original tower collapsed from a quake in 1868. It was rebuilt with wood, but the replacement collapsed again after the 1906 quake. Images from the Historical American Building Survey (HABS) collection in the Library of Congress shown here depict the differences in the two structures. This house is the earliest substantial building in Contra Costa County that was not built entirely of adobe.

The Marsh mansion soon became known as the „Stone House“ because the walls were covered with locally-quarried sandstone. Abby died in 1855, before the house was finished, while John was murdered on September 24, 1856, three weeks after he moved into the house. Marsh was the first non-Hispanic white settler to live in the county. The property encompassed by Marsh Creek State Park was part of Rancho Los Meganos, (Los Meganos is a Spanish phrase meaning „sand dunes“), which Marsh acquired in 1838. In 1860, the U. S. Land Commission recognized over 13,000 acres (5,300 ha) as part of the Marsh estate, which was shared by Charles and Alice Marsh. Alice was the daughter of John and Abby. Charles was John’s son by John’s first marriage.

Neither Charles nor Alice lived in the house after the parents died; the building began to suffer from neglect. A series of tenant farmers occupied the house. Reportedly, one occupant complained in 1878 that the house was in bad shape. The ranch was bought by the Balfour-Guthrie Company. The Cowell Company subsequently acquired the house and land. Neither company had any particular use for the house and spent little on maintenance. The south wall collapsed more than 20 years ago, and a part of the west wall collapsed more recently. Cracks suggested that the north wall could fall soon, and that stabilization of the house was a priority, if the house were to be saved. The roof also needed to be replaced. In 1960, Henry Cowell donated the house to Contra Costa County. In 1979, ownership passed to the California State Parks Department.

Nearly one million dollars has been spent on stabilizing the house since 2006. This work was required to keep the sandstone structure from collapsing.

The Marsh house is 36 by 30 feet (11.0 by 9.1 m) in area by 38 feet (12 m) to the ridge of the roof. The roof has four large dormers, so that the third story is full height. The tower is 47 feet (14 m) tall. A one-foot (0.30 m) wide portico surrounds the house on three sides. Full-length French windows allow access from the portico to each room on the first and second floors. The house has an exterior wall covered with buff-colored sandstone. Inside the stone there was a four-inch (100 mm) void, then another wall built of adobe brick. The first floor contained a stair hall that ran from the front door to the rear door, a parlor, dining room, office and kitchen. The parlor is 20 by 35 feet (6.1 by 10.7 m) by 12 feet (3.7 m) high. The second level has the master bedroom located directly above the parlor and accesses to the top level of the portico. There are two other bedrooms and a bath on the second level that access the stair hall. Another stair leads to the third level, which contains three more rooms. A ladder leads from the third floor hall to the tower parapet.

Creation of a visitor center, trailheads, picnic areas, parking, equestrian facilities, campsites and accommodations for special events, such as a farmers market are all under consideration for future development. Restoration of the Stone House will soon begin, largely funded by the California Cultural Historic Endowment and matching donations from the John Marsh Historic Trust. Construction of a replica of Marsh’s original four-room adobe house is also under consideration. The park land contains some historic Native American burial sites. Larry Myers, a representative of the California Native American Heritage Commission, urged state park officials to keep the burial sites off-limits to the public.

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