Fall of the forest monarchs
It probably seemed like a good idea at the time, but, in today’s light, it is a sad legacy of the 19th century.
“It” is the cutting down of majestic trees in the Sierra Nevada just to prove their existence. And, without doubt, the toppling of massive Sequoias, the monarchs of the forest, was the most tragic occurrence of all.
In the 19th century, rumors abounded as to the wonders of the American West. There were stories of solid gold mountains, waterfalls that fell upwards, and even the contention that live dinosaurs still wandered the hills and valleys.
In an era of limited communications, these assertions were often hard to prove and the public adopted a “show me” attitude. This was particularly true of the stories related to the ‘Big Trees,’ the giant Sequoias of the Sierra.
Since the arrival of the Euro-American culture in the 1840s, reports of gigantic trees filtered into the community. Not just large trees were rumored, but absolutely gigantic trees reaching hundreds of feet into the sky and dozens of feet in diameter. “Show me,” said the skeptics, “prove your claim.” And so began the practice of cutting down specimens to confirm their existence and provide tangible exhibits for the unbelieving.
This practice was assisted by a thriving and efficient lumber industry in the Sierra Nevada. In Nevada County, for instance, timber was needed for the mines and the development of the railroad. It was not long before lumbering became a significant force in the regional economy. As early as 1858, Nevada County had 42 lumber mills that produced over 39 million feet of lumber in that calendar year alone. Thirteen lumber mills were located just in Grass Valley. Multiply that by the counties that stretch throughout the Sierra and one gets a sense of the scope of this activity.
As a result, cutting down trees was not unusual, but felling a huge tree was a unique challenge – a challenge embraced by a generation that felt that their level of technology had improved to a point where conquering nature was possible, even desirable.
Sequoias are among the oldest existing life forms on earth and the largest living organisms on the planet. Some trees tower more than 200 feet and have diameters in excess of 30 feet.
The General Sherman Tree in Sequoia National Park is generally believed to be the world’s largest living thing. It is 275 feet tall, 37 feet in diameter, contains an estimated 52,500 cubic feet of lumber, and is about 2,400 years old.
Among the first monarchs to fall was in the Calaveras Big Trees, a celebrated grove of giant Sequoias. This large collection of spectacular Sequoia specimens is found in the Calaveras Big Trees State Park, about 25 miles from Angels Camp along Highway 4. This grove has the famous Discovery Tree Stump, the remnant of a giant tree that was cut down to provide a 25 foot diameter dance floor. In 1853, five workers took several weeks to cut through the massive tree. However, due to its perfectly symmetrical shape, it took a strong breeze to finally topple the sequoia. The huge chunk of fallen timber rests alongside its stump – at one point its surface was used as a bowling alley. A tourist pavilion was constructed over the stump. The structure was used as a dance hall, newspaper office, and exhibit room. A nearby piece of the trunk, nicknamed “The Chip” had a ladder attached that allowed visitors to climb this relic for years. The pavilion and the ladder have since been dismantled.
Another poignant vestige in the Calaveras Park is the enormous charred remains of a Giant Sequoia that had its bark removed in 1854. In that year, George Gale had 116 feet of bark stripped from one of the largest trees, named “Mother of the Forest.” This Herculean task took four workers a total of 21 days to accomplish. The bark was then reassembled as a traveling exhibit. The show was designed to prove the existence of these gigantic wonders and to make some money, of course.
The display was presented throughout the United States and ultimately ended up in England. In London, the tree bark was exhibited in a glass case in the Crystal Palace. A fire destroyed the display in 1866. Today the only memory of this event is the tree’s scarred skeleton, a target for lightning and fire, standing like a broken tooth deep in the park’s North Grove.
About 100 miles south of the Calaveras Big Trees are Sequoia National Park and Kings Canyon National Park. Here, two giant trees became destined for destruction.
In 1891, a sequoia named “The Mark Twain Tree” in Sequoia National Park was cut down for scientific study. Two slabs were removed – one was sent to the American Museum of Natural History in New York, the other to the British Museum. The cuts were made 12 feet above ground and produced 16-foot diameter examples. The slices were sanded, polished, and banded, and then reinstalled in the museums.
The 9-ton New York specimen was so cumbersome to ship that it was split into a dozen wedge-shaped pieces for easier delivery. The stump is still a tourist location within the park.
In 1893, the official exhibit of the United States government at the Chicago World’s Fair was a hollow, 30-foot tall section of a Kings Canyon Big Tree, named “The General Noble Tree.” The section was configured into a two-story structure that visitors could enter. The floor that separated the two stories was a thick slice of the sequoia itself. The government’s reasoning for felling this beautiful organism was to prove the existence of these fabled big trees to a doubting public back east. Following the Fair, the “house” was reassembled on the Capitol Mall in Washington, D.C., and remained there as a gardener’s shed through the early 1930s.
Thankfully, this practice mostly ended in the 19th century. Today, we view these ancient living sovereigns at their home in their natural state. For most of us, simply being in the presence of these giants is an indelible, life-long memory. We echo the sentiments of Col. J.L.L. Warren, one of the first to verify the reality of these forest monarchs. He wrote in 1857: “No description we can give could convey … the wonder and awe which one is impressed, when standing beneath these giant trees; a feeling creeps upon you of inexpressible reverence for these trees, and one does not wish to speak aloud, but rather be silent and think.”
Gary Noy, director of the Center for Sierra Nevada Studies at Sierra College’s Rocklin campus, appears monthly in The Union. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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