A Short Hike to Schilling Lake and Dennis Martin Creek
Thornewood Open Space Preserve
(In Search of Sawmills on the Peninsula)
"Only those thoughts that come by walking have any value." - Nietzsche
Directions: Take I-80 to Woodside Road (Hwy 84) and go west on Woodside Road through the town of Woodside (past Wunderlich Park) to the junction where Woodside Road becomes La Honda Road. Continue uphill on La Honda Road for 1.6 miles to and through two brick gateposts marked nos. 895 and 897 on your left.
Grade: Easy. Elevation loss of less than 100 feet.
Distance: 1.5 miles round trip.
Time: Two hours.
Special Conditions: No drinking water or toilet facilities. Dogs OK on leash but not allowed to swim in Schilling Lake. Watch for poison oak. Preserve is managed by Midpeninsula Regional Open Space District (650-691-1200).
William Martin, with his wife and three children, began a cross-country trek from Missouri to California in 1844. At the urging of a Jesuit priest, the Martin family had joined two other Irish families--the Murphys and the Sullivans—to leave Missouri in search of “Catholic institutions” in the West. The Sullivan, Murphy, and Martin party became the first of the pioneer migrants to push wagons into California over the Sierras. Their route was the same as the Donner party had chosen two years later.
In the summer of 1845, Capt. John A. Sutter--of Sutter’s Fort fame—hired William Martin’s son, Dennis, to supervise three Indians cutting redwood on the San Francisco Peninsula. While so employed, Dennis Martin met a fellow Irishman, John Copinger. From him, Martin purchased a 1,500-acre rancho in the vicinity of Jasper Ridge (in the general area of Woodside as we know it today) for $1,500.
And that brings us to this week’s hike to Martin’s Lower and Upper saw mills. (For more on Dennis Martin and his part in forming local history, get a copy of “The History of Jasper Ridge: From Searsville Pioneers to Stanford Scientists,” by Dorothy F. Regnery, a Stanford Centennial publication by the Stanford Historical Society. The above facts come from this fascinating book—a worthy addition to the library of anyone interested in local history.)
This hike takes us to Martin’s Upper Mill (1853-1856), and if you are ready to bushwhack, his Lower Mill (1849-?). Both mill sites are located on Dennis Martin Creek, which flows from Schilling Lake to Searsville Lake. The Lower Mill was the first of the two built in 1849, about the same time that Martin built the first water-powered mill on the Peninsula along San Francisquito Creek, below the confluence with Bear Gulch Creek. Regrettably, this mill was destroyed by flood a few weeks after completion.
To reach the trail, pass through the brick gateposts numbered 895 and 897 Alpine Road, and continue for .3 mile to a signed six-space car parking lot. Walk a short distance along the road to the trailhead on your left. Schilling Lake is .7 mile ahead. The first part of the trail is mostly level as it meanders through the second-growth forest dominated by tanbark oak.
Two switchbacks bring you down to another level area below the Thornewood house. At that point the view opens up to the east and south, with glimpses of Santa Clara Valley. The trail continues its gradual descent to an intersection with an old ranch road.
Turn left (a right turn will dead-end at the chain-link gate, which is part of the leased area) and descend into a cool redwood forest with views of Schilling Lake on your left. This one-acre lake was created by a small earthen dam that you can walk across.
Next to the dam is a concrete spillway with opposing vertical slots in which planks were placed to raise the water level several feet above the spillway. Below the spillway is a deep redwood canyon, which is the start of Dennis Martin Creek. Martin’s Upper Mill was located in the vicinity of Schilling Lake.
This mill was comparatively large for its time, with 26 saws. It operated for three years. It closed, and the equipment was hauled away. According to Frank Stanger’s “Sawmills in the Redwoods,” the mill closed because Martin was in serious financial trouble, due in part to a property boundary dispute with the Arguello family.
“Official records make it very clear that the reason Martin sold his Upper Mill, to be moved away was because the land on which it stood was about to be seized by the sheriff for non-payment of taxes.” (page 29)
Martin’s Lower Mill is located about a half-mile down Dennis Martin Creek from Schilling Lake. An old trail runs along the creek, but it is very overgrown, and I haven’t pursued it far enough to find the mill site.
As a footnote, Martin sold his Upper Mill to a partnership—Jones, Mills, and Franklin, who moved it over the Skyline Ridge to the headwaters of La Honda Creek, making it among the first mills to be moved to the west side of Skyline.
This is a fine hike for children—short and full of interesting sights and sounds. And while you are enjoying the area, consider that the lake is named for August Schilling, the “King of Spice.” Schilling purchased the land from Julian Thorne, who purchased it from Edward Preston (attorney), who purchased it from our pioneer lumberman, Dennis Martin.
References in this walk to sawmills and logging are credited to “Sawmills in the Redwoods.” Logging on the San Francisco Peninsula – 1849-1967,” written by Frank M. Stanger and published by the San Mateo County Historical Association, 777 Hamilton St., Redwood City, CA 94062.