Between Myth and Legend: Who Really Owned Henderson Open Space?

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Henderson Open Space, located behind the former Raley’s shopping center on Hartnell Avenue, is a jewel among Redding’s green spaces. It’s generally accepted that the family for whom Henderson Road is named also owned the semi-wild land that runs west down to the Sacramento River, south to the Rother subdivision and north toward the Cypress Street Bridge.

Surprisingly, documentation reveals that another family owned and lived on the property for more than 50 years.

The Viscaino family owned 20 acres of what’s now Henderson Open Space. They purchased it from Jacob Graffe in 1931 and moved onto the property in 1932. After making yearly payments, a Transfer of Property document shows that Graffe transferred ownership to Mrs. Viscaino in 1943.

Mike Viscaino and his mother in 1940.

Mike Viscaino and his mother in 1940.

The Viscaisno’s youngest son, Mike, born in 1934, is one of their seven children raised on the property.

The land was different then. There were open meadows and clear ponds teaming with fish. The largest pond featured a thriving wood duck population, now long gone.

The Sacramento River was different, too. It originally lay east of where it is today. You can still see a shallow channel of water where it once ran full and clear.

Viscaino Family Life

Viscaino’s father farmed seven acres of the land, raising alfalfa, cucumbers, tomatoes, corn, turnips, watermelon and more, working it with a horse and plow. Look closely and you’ll see railroad tie fence posts he put up to keep his horse out of the crops.

Viscaino crops were prized in the area. Redding’s Safeway market bought everything Mr. Viscaino could produce. What wasn’t sold to Redding’s 8,000 residents was taken to Sacramento for sale.

Mrs. Viscaino planted an orchard near their homestead. It included two walnut trees — which she grafted into English walnuts — four peach trees, four or five cherry trees, three fig trees and a persimmon tree. The persimmon and giant walnut trees are still alive on Henderson Open Space.

The food they grew helped the Viscainos survive. Harvested walnuts helped pay the tax bill. Elderberries that grew abundantly around the property became delicious jam. Mrs. Viscaino canned the salmon they caught from the river. This, along with some bacon and dried corn they’d grown, saw the family through the winter.

The Viscainos lived in a four-bedroom, 1,500 square foot house. Now, the flat land where it once stood features a disc golf station, a stone bench and trees that weren’t there 50 years ago.

Remnants of the old homestead – erroneously believed to have been the Hemsted family’s – are still visible: the driveway, the septic tank that Viscaino’s father built and the pump house that pumped water for his garden. The concrete steps, and foundation for one of the cabins the elder Viscaino built are still there.

But there’s more to this story.

The Viscainos spent summers on the Henderson property and winters in Enterprise. Young Mike even attended first grade at Cypress Elementary School.

“You had to hang onto the bridge to let traffic get by to get there,” he said.

One day the sheriff caught then-young Mike Viscaino at the other end of the bridge on his way to school. After taking Mike straight to the principal, they made arrangements for him to go to an Enterprise school so he wouldn’t have to walk that bridge again.

Where did the Henderson family mythology come from?

The Cobblestone Shopping Center was the actual Henderson homestead. Their land ran down Hartnell Avenue and included the property on the Red Banks (Hemsted Avenue). They owned nothing on the west side of Henderson Road.

But disaster brought the Hemsteds and Viscanos together.

From December 1939 through January 1940, Redding experienced a 200-year flood with torrential rains.

“The flood washed the gravel in,” said Viscaino, which he said created more land. The Viscaino’s original 16 acres morphed to 20.

But the devastation from the flood caused the Viscainos to lose their home, two barns and two rental cabins. Afterword, they stayed in the Hemsted’s barn and stored things there for a while.

Viscaino senior eventually built cabins up above the original homestead area.

In 1947, at age 53, Viscaino died of miner’s consumption. He had worked at the smelter in Kennett, now submerged beneath Shasta Lake. One of Mike Viscaino’s brothers, who’d also worked there, one of his sisters and his mother later died from respiratory problems.

Mike Viscaino lived on the “Henderson” property from 1934 until he left for the Army in 1953, where he served for 20 yrs before coming back to Redding. His Mother stayed and lived alone on the property. She finally moved out in the 1980’s.

Visitors walking through Henderson Open Space come across a large sign dedicated “In memory of Mildred Hemsted Sommerfield, in 1914-2013…” It depicts a painting called “The Old Homestead,” created by Edith Hemsted Woodrum.

Edith Hemsted Woodrum is the fraternal grandmother of Redding philanthropist Steve Woodrum, a financial backer of the Henderson Open Space. A Henderson descendant, he has stated that the painting depicts part of the property where Lithia Chevrolet and View 202 restaurant are now located. He agrees it’s mistakenly been thought to be the Hemsted home.

So upon mistaken identity a myth has grown and the open space has been inaccurately attributed.

Should the property rightfully be renamed for the Viscainos, who lived and worked the land for more than 50 years?

With clear documentation available, perhaps the City owes some sort of visible and proper recognition to this resilient family.

A former long-term resident of Redding who loves its natural wonders, journalist and blogger Debra Atlas is reachable or
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19 Responses

  1. Randall R. Smith Randall R. Smith says:

    Thanks Debra,

    With all due respect and certainly not the time devoted to research you have given, I submit the Hemsteds, Woodrums and Viscainos are “Johnny Come Lately” compared to the Hendersons who were pioneer cattle ranchers of the 1800s and had the original land on the east side of much of Redding all the way from the River to the current Municipal Airport.  They and a neighbor to the south had parallel huge holdings which allowed them to pasture cattle between winter and summer ranges without need for long annual drives as other area cattle people performed.  The Henderson Open Space is properly named.  Many features of its earlier life including those disputed by more recent people including Northern California Power Co., Historic Free Bridge, American Transit, Inc. and Thatcher Lumber Co. are still extant on the now public property.

    Very recent volunteer activity beginning in 2005 aimed at recovery, restitution and enhanced public access are a credit to this vital and vibrant land which was abandoned, overgrown and inaccessible for an entire generation.  Had it not been for the Shasta Mosquito and Vector Control District, the system of treatment roads throughout the property would have been lost and more work required to produce the unique and wonderful place coming into glorious high spring seen today.  Ongoing stewardship belongs to everyone and needs no credential, lineage or unsustainable grant funding.

    • Avatar Steve Smith says:

      Randall Smith has my gratitude and respect for the work he has done as a steward of Redding’s public spaces. But calling the Hemsted family, the Viscaino family, and the Woodrum family “Johnny Come Lately” is a form of name calling and I don’t think it is productive in providing facts and further discovering the history of the Henderson Open Space.


      In a later post Randall Smith speaks of ownership “buried in conjecture”. Anyone who does a title search down at the courthouse will see that the Viscaino family owned 20 acres of what is now identified as the Henderson Open Space. 

      Since R.  Smith used the word “comjecture”. Can he provide any documents proving the Hendersons owned the HOS property?  Can he provide evidence of a cattle ranch?  If the Hendersons did own the HOS property when did they sell it? 1900? 1890?

       Celestino and Asuncion Viscaino purchased the property from Jacob and Marie Graf.  The Grafs purchased the property from the Leonardinis.  The Leonardinis purchased the land from a Baron Van Balveren.  These transactions trace back to 1916. Debra Atlas has seen the documents and newspaper articles.  So if the Hendersons did own the property when did they sell it? 1910? 1900? That’s 116 years ago.  

      The Viscaino family wanted the Viscaino ranch preserved and never developed. In the mid-1980s the surviving Viscaino children saw to it that the ownership of the ranch was transferred to become part of the City of Redding’s green belt along the Sacramento River. What did the Hendersons have to do with that?



  2. Avatar name says:

    Thank you for the great history – anyone lived and worked such an important piece of land for 50 years deserves recognition.  If the dam had been built earlier, perhaps their descendants would still be living there.

  3. Avatar Richard says:

    As one who frequently enjoys the HOS while biking or walking, I very much appreciate this excellent piece on its history. And many thanks to Dr. Smith, Bethel volunteers, and the City of Redding for their efforts in returning this splendid area to the public.


  4. Hal Johnson Hal Johnson says:

    Fascinating. Thanks.


  5. Steve Towers Steve Towers says:

    Fascinating read.   The riparian habitat in the photos from 1940 doesn’t look particularly healthy.  I wonder if the vegetation was still recovering from the last of the copper smelters that closed (as I recall) a couple decades previous to the big flood?  Maybe just a combination of clearing for farming and leafless winter trees and shrubs.

    • Avatar Michael Viscaino says:

      When the Free Bridge collapsed in the 1940 flood a portion of it settled in a way that directed water towards our property. Subsequently, four to five feet of topsoil was washed away along with the trees anchored in the soil. Just about everything was swept away.  Another reason why the photo looks so desolate is because most everything is underwater.
      The photo of our three cabins shows three to four feet of silt deposited between the middle cabin and the cabin on the left. It can give a person an idea of what the current was sweeping away.
      South of that photo large Ash trees with their deep tap root were able to withstand the flood but they were bent over and over the next couple of years of cleanup my father cut them down.
      One of the cabins was saved and it can be seen in the photo dated 1971.  Also in the 1971 photo the cement porch and steps can be seen.  Those are the same steps and porch visible on the property today.  (Debra has also provided a photo with this article of the porch as it looks today.) My mother and I poured that cement. We poured sand in the center of the porch to save on cement.
      As far as the copper smelters go, they were closed before I was born.  I can’t say I noticed damage around Redding from the smelters. My older siblings and parents did not mention the smelters had damaged the trees around town.
      On the other hand, my brother had a job hauling brick from Kennett to Redding.  There was a salvage operation going on because as the dam was being built the lake was beginning to form, and the town of Kennett would soon be flooded. I’d ride along with him and we would cross the lake on a flat barge to get to Kennett where the brick was loaded into the truck. I did notice the damage to the western mountainside near the dam and southwest of the dam was basically barren of vegetation too. I don’t want to get off on too many tangents but if I remember correctly an erosion prevention program involved the spreading of manzanita berries to repopulate the area with brush.

  6. Randall Smith Randall Smith says:

    The Flood of 1940 had crested by 3 March when the water reached the deck of the Diestelhorst Bridge.  That kind of power which was not then uncommon made the flood plain what is not known today except in pictures…trees and grass.

    Removal of confluent and dangerous non native plants attempts to restore and maintain this natural appearance at Riverland Open Space, Riverbend Open Space, Henderson Open Space, Riverfront Park and along the North and South Sacramento River Trails.

    The work is not finished, but it is advanced to the point where the eventual goal is easy to see.  Hopefully, more people will come and appreciate this wonderful transition.

  7. Randall Smith Randall Smith says:

    BTW, after the upper bench including the pictured foundation was recovered, many plantings near the English walnut were recovered.  Among these is an exotic calla lily thought by CDFW Dr. Lis to have originated in South Africa.  Attempts to keep disc golf from destroying this important living artifact, among others, have been marginally successful.

    Henderson Open Space is a world of natural and cultural history less than 300 yards from City Hall.  However, it is likely less than 1% of Redding residents have ever visited this remarkable and lovely place.

  8. Randall Smith Randall Smith says:

    Another thought: if the main channel was previously east of today’s placement, how was gravel extracted and sorted for I-5?  Why do 1940 Era pictures posted at the HOS entrance show the channel as it is today?   And why was the Free Bridge located so far west if the channel was so far east?  It isn’t only ownership which lies hidden and buried in conjecture at Henderson Open Space.

    • Avatar name says:

      Are there any old maps that could clear that up? (the channel location)

    • Steve Towers Steve Towers says:

      The earliest aerial photo I could find online is from 1943, and it doesn’t do much to clear up the issue of where the primary channel was located in the 1930s.  It wouldn’t be surprise me at all if the river jumped from one route to another in the 1940 flood—that’s why side-channels and oxbows exist.  Evidence of a well-developed riparian forest persisting away from the extant channel in the 1943 photo would be suggestive that the channel jumped, but the riparian habitat looks to be mostly denuded everywhere in Redding in the early 1940s.   Russ, do you know if the ponds at Henderson are an old side-channel?  I’m no geomorphologist, but to my eye they’re excavations.

    • Avatar Michael Viscaino says:

      Concerning the river channel, pre-1940 flood there was an island that divided the river. It began below  the 1907 Free Bridge and ran for approximately 1900+ feet. My father measured the length of our property and it was about 1400 feet and the island extended for another 500 feet past our property. So there were two river channels; the western channel and the eastern channel with the western channel probably carrying about two-thirds of the river flow.
      The island wasn’t very high.  In fact water would cross over it in places as it flowed from one channel to the other.  In the winter the island was submerged.  My brother Joe used to put me on his back and wade over to it. There were a few scrawny willows growing on it and not much else.
      I hope that helps to clarify the river channel question. 

  9. Randall R. Smith Randall R. Smith says:

    Shasta Historical Society has lots of early photographs dating back to the first Free Bridge, the Second Free Bridge and repairs and reconstructions.  One of these pictures at 1940 flood stage is mounted on a large story plaque at the entrance to Henderson Open Space. The channel appears in these images, slightly upstream, to be exactly where it is today.  The present ponds are excavations from which gravel was extracted and sorted on the the Henderson Open Space property.  Much of this material eventually was used to supply gravel for the building of I-5 Bridges in this area.  We had salvaged a dredge block and tackle and concrete weight used in this excavating process, but the metal was stolen before it could be preserved.

    • Steve Towers Steve Towers says:

      Yeah, they looked like gravel pits to me.  (An aside: I was a gravel pit laborer on Golden, CO one summer during my high school years.  When Clear Creek’s gravel pits no longer produced material or the pumps couldn’t keep up with the groundwater, the pits got stocked with sunfish and thereafter provided “Pure Rocky Mountain spring water” to the nearby Adolph Coors plant.

      Russ, you attribute the relative dearth of riparian vegetation in historic photos to flood scour.  That makes sense—much of the riparian habitat on the river today is probably a result of deposition and armoring that occur when scouring floods no longer occur below dams.  But it looks to me like Redding in general lacked big trees through the 1940s.  I still wonder if a decades-lasting legacy of the smelters and/or clearing for farming and grazing were contributing factors.

  10. Avatar Michael Viscaino says:

    The gravel ponds behind the lumber mill did not supply the construction of the I-5 bridges. J H Hein was finished dredging the ponds behind the lumber mill around 1948. They moved the dredging operation down to the Rother property.

    Jimmy Borders and his sisters, Jennie and Judy, used to come down to our ranch and we’d all go swimming in the gravel ponds. The dragline operator in between truckloads would drop the bucket in the water to create waves for us to enjoy. We were just kids and we thought it was a big deal when he’d drop the bucket for us.

  11. Avatar Steve Smith says:

    I read the other Henderson Open Space articles posted on aNewsCafe. One of them dated October 4, 20011, in the comments section, someone said a canal used to run from the top of the property to the bottom and that the traces of the manmade waterway is now known as “Wood Duck Slough”. Here is the quote: “Sacramento River water was taken via concrete barriers at the other end of the property and “Wood Duck Slough” is the present day reminder of this canal. “

    What people mistakenly think was a canal was the pre-1940 eastern channel of the Sacramento River according to Mike.

  12. Avatar Steve Smith says:

    The article says the property increased from 16 acres to 20 acres after the flood.  That indicates a shift in the channel.

  13. Avatar Michael Viscaino says:

    The property was fourteen acres not 16 acres.