A Nevada City fable: How the ‘Town Tree’ tradition began
A gaily lighted, 60-foot white fir in downtown Nevada City’s Calanan Park carries on a tradition that dates back to 1854.
The white fir inherited the title “Town Tree” in 1965 when its predecessor, a massive, century-old, giant sequoia, was felled at the foot of Prospect Hill to make way for the Golden Center Freeway that cuts through the downtown.
Legend credits an 8-year old girl named Phoebe Campion with beginning the tradition by designating the first Town Tree.
According to the story, Phoebe and her widowed mother lived in a cabin overlooking the Manzanita hydraulic diggins’ north of Nevada City. Her father had been killed that summer in a mining accident at the Manzanita.
It was the week before Christmas, and Phoebe was confined to bed with a fever. From her window she watched the miners direct powerful streams of water through huge metal nozzles against the hillsides to wash down the gold-bearing gravel from what had been an ancient river bottom.
It was late afternoon and a faint cry brought Helen Campion from the kitchen to her daughter’s bedside. The little girl sobbed and pointed through the window to a tall pine tree, back-lighted by the setting sun atop a cliff near where the water was cutting away the mountain.
“Mommy, mommy, that big Christmas tree will be washed away. Please don’t let them,” she pleaded.
Her mother took the little girl in her arms and comforted her. “I’ll speak to Mr. Penrose in the morning. He was so kind to us after your father’s accident. I’m sure he’ll help. Now go to sleep, dear.”
Next morning, Helen Campion was awakened by the sound of thundering water as it tore the earth from the hillside across the canyon, washing it in a swirling, muddy mass into the stream it formed.
The young mother dressed quickly and headed for the superintendent’s office. She felt both fear and optimism as she trudged along the muddy pathway leading to the mine building.
Harold Penrose smoked his clay pipe and listened to Helen Campion relate Phoebe’s fear of losing her Christmas tree. “I don’t know what we can do. We’re set to wash the hill down starting the 24th …”
“Christmas Eve. Oh, no!” the young woman was pale; she sank back into her chair.
“There, there, missy, I just don’t know. I just don’t know,” he frowned deeply as he stared out the window at the pine tree, Phoebe’s Christmas tree. “Maybe …” he paused, “I’ll just have to think.”
Helen Campion thanked him and trudged back up the pathway to face a frail but hopeful Phoebe. The little girl’s eyes brightened as her mother crossed the room and sat on the bed. “My pretty Christmas tree, will it be all right?”
Helen Campion’s voice trembled as she hugged Phoebe and said, “Mr. Penrose will think of something.”
“Oh, thank you mommy.” The little girl rolled over in bed and gazed out the window at her Christmas tree. “I just know everything will be all right.”
Outside, the rain began to fall.
The next day was Christmas Eve, and the nozzles were directed at the base of the hill crowned by Phoebe’s pine tree. All day the miners continued their destructive business. The roar of water continued as the cold winter sun began to set.
Phoebe fell asleep, secure in her innocent belief that the tree would be there in the morning. Her mother sat down in a rocker in front of the fireplace to begin a Christmas Eve vigil. Soon she, too, fell asleep. The oak logs burned to a white ash.
At dawn, Helen Campion woke up and rose quickly to her feet. Something was wrong. She ran to the door and listened. There was no sound; the nozzles were silent! She opened the cabin door and went outside.
There on top of the hill, lighted by the warm rays of the Christmas morning sun, was the tree – Phoebe’s pretty pine Christmas tree! Trembling, she turned to enter the cabin and stopped short as three mud-splattered men came up the path from the diggins.’ She recognized Harold Penrose and the two miners who had worked with her late husband.
“What on earth are you doing out and about on Christmas morning?” Helen asked.
“Strangest thing happened last night,” Penrose answered. “The rain must’ve loosened a big boulder up where the flume carries the water around the hill. Whole thing come down and took out a 100 feet o’ flume. Might take weeks to fix her. I think by that time, the boss’ll see we’re not gettin’ much gold outa her and should move on up the hill.” He suppressed a smile.
The two miners chuckled as they nodded in agreement.
For a moment Helen was stunned. “The boulder!” she thought. She could not speak; she had questions, but dared not ask.
“We’d better get along now. Merry Christmas to you and little Phoebe,” Penrose said as the three headed toward town.
“God bless you and a very Merry Christmas to you, too.” Helen’s joyful smile filled the little cabin as she turned to wake Phoebe.
Bob Wyckoff is a retired newspaper editor, an author of local history, a lifetime student of California history and a longtime resident of Nevada County. You can write him at The Union, 464 Sutton Way, Grass Valley, 95945.
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