The Big Trees of California

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"The Big Trees of California"

Journal article

By: Anonymous

Date: June 5, 1858

Source: "The Big Trees of California." Harper's Weekly (June 5, 1858): 357.

About the Author: This article was published without a byline, and was written by a staff writer for the Harper's Weekly, an American journal of literature, politics, culture, and the arts.


A staff writer with Harper's Weekly magazine wrote on June 5, 1858, about the discovery in 1850 of a group of gigantic trees known as the "Big Trees of Calaveras County." Believed not to exist at these huge sizes anywhere else in the world, these ninety-two trees (at that time scientifically classified as Washingtonia gigantea) were located in an isolated valley of about 160 mountainous acres (65 hectares) approximately 240 miles (386 kilometers) east of San Francisco, California. The tree called the "Mother of the Forest," with a circumference of 90 feet (27 meters) and a height of about 300 feet (91 meters), appeared as an artist's 1852 drawing within the original 1858 article with the caption "The 'Big Tree' in Calaveras County, California." The largest of the trees (which had already fallen to the ground), called the "Father of the Forest," measured 112 feet (34 meters) in circumference at its base, 42 feet (13 meters) in circumference at a distance of 300 feet (91 meters) from the base, and was estimated to have stood at a height of at least 450 feet (137 meters). The Big Trees became widely popular with the public after businessman George Gale and his partners employed lumbermen to strip the bark off of the Mother of the Forest tree in order to feature it in a sideshow attraction shown around the world.



Among the many remarkable natural curiosities of the land of gold, not the least is that solitary group of gigantic pines known as the "Big Trees of Calaveras County." Many of our readers will remember the sections of bark taken from one of the group, which were exhibited some years ago in our principal cities, and which excited the wonder of all beholders, and the doubts of many, who could not persuade themselves that so monstrous a mass could ever have grown upon a single tree.

The group in Calaveras County are solitary specimens of their race. There are no others of their kind or size on the known globe. It is a singular fact that the group, consisting of ninety-two trees, is contained in a valley only one hundred and sixty acres in extent. Beyond the limits of this little amphitheatre the pines and cedars of the country shrink into the Lilliputian dimensions of the common New England pine—say a hundred and fifty feet, or thereabout. They are situated in Calaveras County, about two hundred and forty miles from San Francisco, but may be reached with a couple of days of railroad and stagecoach traveling.

A few hunters, in 1850, were pushing their way into the then unexplored forest, when one of them, who was in advance, broke into this space, and the giants were then first seen by white men. Their colossal proportions, and the impressive silence of the surrounding woods, created a feeling of awe among the hunters; and after walking around the great trunks, and gazing reverentially up at their grand proportions, they returned to the nearest settlements and gave an account of what they had seen. Their statements, however, were considered fabulous until confirmed by actual measurement. The trees have been appropriately named the Washingtonia Gigantea, though some of the sapient savans of San Francisco have endeavored to have the Washingtonia changed to Wellingtonia, because some English botanist, availing himself of the discovery by American frontiersmen, hastened to appropriate the name for his countryman. The basin or valley in which they stand is very damp, and retains here and there pools of water. Some of the largest trees extend their roots directly into the stagnant water, or into the brooks. Arriving at "Murphy's Diggings" by one of the daily lines of stages, either from Sacramento or Stockton, or by the Sonora coach, you are within fifteen miles of the celebrated grove; and from here it is a pretty horseback ride to the "Mammoth Tree Hotel." This has been erected within a year or two, to accommodate the many visitors; for the "big trees" have now become objects of general interest.

Adjoining the hotel, with which it is connected by a floor, stands the stump of the "Big Tree," which was cut down three years since. It measures ninety-six feet in circumference. Its surface is smooth, and offers ample space for thirty-two persons to dance, showing seventy-five feet of circumference of solid timber. Theatrical performances were given upon it by the Chapman family and Robinson family in May, 1855. This monster was cut down by boring with long and powerful augers, and sawing the spaces between—an achievement of Vandalism as ingenious as the Chinese refinement in cruelty of pulling out the nails of criminals with pincers. It required the labor of five men twenty-five days to effect its fall, the tree standing so near perpendicular that the aid of wedges and a battering ram was necessary to complete the desecration. But even then the immense mass resisted all efforts to overthrow it, until in the dead of a tempestuous night it began to groan and sway in the storm like an expiring giant, and it succumbed at last to the elements, which alone could complete from above what the human ants had commenced below. Its fall was like the shock of an earthquake, and was heard fifteen miles away—at "Murphy's Diggings." There fell in this great trunk some thousands of cords of wood, and it buried itself twelve feet deep in the mire that bordered the little creck near by. Not far from where it struck stand two colossal members of this family, called the "Guardsmen:" the mud splashed nearly a hundred feet high upon their trunks. As it lay on the ground, it measured three hundred and two feet clear of the stump and broken top-work. Large trees had been snapped asunder like pipe-stems, and the woods around were splintered and crushed to the earth. On its leveled surface are now situated the bar-room and two bowling alleys of the hotel, the latter running parallel a distance of eighty-one feet.

One of the most interesting of the group is that called the "Mother of the Forest," … It is now the loftiest of the grove, rising to the height of three hundred and twenty-seven feet, straight and beautifully proportioned, and at this moment the largest living tree in the world. It is ninety feet in circumference. Into this trunk could be cut an apartment as large as a common-sized parlor, and as high as the architect chose to make it, without endangering the tree or injuring its outward appearance….

But the dimensions of the whole group pale before these of the prostrate giant known as the Father of the Forest. This monster has long since bowed his head in the dust; but how stupendous in his ruin! The tree measures one hundred and twelve feet in circumference at the base, and forty-two feet in circumference at a distance of three hundred feet from the roots, at which point it was broken short off in its fall. The upper portion, beyond this break, is greatly decayed; but, judging from the average taper of the others, this tree must have towered to the prodigious height of at least four hundred and fifty feet! A chamber or burned cavity extends through the trunk two hundred feet, broad and high enough for a person to ride on horseback through; and a pond deep enough to float a common river steam-boat stands in this great excavation during the rainy reason. Walking on the trunk, and looking from its uprooted base, the mind can scarce conceive its astonishing dimensions. Language fails to give an adequate idea of it. It was, when standing, a pillar of timber that overtopped all other trees on the globe. "To read simply of a tree four hundred and fifty feet high," observes the Country Gentleman, "We are struck with large figures; but we can hardly appreciate the height without some comparison. Such one as this would stretch across a field of twenty-seven rods wide. If standing in the Niagara chasm at Suspension Bridge, it would tower two hundred feet above the top of the bridge; if placed in Broadway, New York, at the head of Wall Street, it would overtop Trinity steeple one hundred and sixty feet; and would be two hundred and thirty feet higher than Bunker Hill Monument, Charlestown; or two hundred and seventy feet above Washington Monument, Baltimore. If cut up for fuel, it would make at least three thousand cords, or as much as would be yielded by sixty acres of good woodland. If sawed into two-inch boards, it would yield about three million feet, and furnish enough three-inch plank for thirty miles of plank road. This will do for the product of one little seed, less in size than a grain of wheat."

These trees are not the California redwood, as has been affirmed of them. They are a species of cedar peculiar to the western slopes of the Sierra Nevada. The growth, bark, and leaf are different from those of any other tree. Botanists class them, and probably correctly, among the Taxodiums. Foreigners will doubtless continue to rechristen them after this or that European celebrity. All who write or speak of them should avoid being thus led, and perpetuate the glorious name given them shortly after their discovery—the Washingtonia Gigantea.


Although Gale and his partners initially killed some of the Big Trees of California with the intent to monetarily profit from their discovery, they ultimately helped to protect these trees and the overall natural wonders of the Sierra Nevada mountain range in California. When Gale took his Big Tree sideshow (or Mother of the Forest exhibition) on his worldwide tour with a reassembled bark section of the downed tree, it was sometimes met with skepticism. People often did not believe that authentic bark could grow two feet thick and that the tree had lived to be over 2,500 years old (as indicated by the tree's ring structure).

More importantly, most people were angry with Gale that such a grand and statuesque tree was cut down for a publicity stunt. At the time, editors of the Boston, Massachusetts-based Gleason's Pictorial said, "To our mind, it seems a cruel idea, a perfect desecration, to cut down such a splendid tree … what in the world could have possessed any mortal to embark in such a speculation with this mountain of wood?"

Many famous newspapermen and authors of that time such as Horace Greeley, James Russell Lowell, George Catlin, John Wesley Powell, and John Burroughs spearheaded the cause of preserving such natural wonders. Articles from New York to California described the wonders in the Yosemite area and suggested that such a natural beauty should be protected from human development. In March 1864, President Lincoln signed a bill to protect the Yosemite Valley and later, on May 17, 1864, the U.S. Congress transferred two federal plots of land in Mariposa County to California.

Interest grew in the following years as journalists suggested state protection of other natural beauties such as Niagara Falls and the Adirondack Mountains, and federal protection of Yellowstone Park in the Western territories. Then, on March 1, 1872, President Ulysses S. Grant designated by law that over two million federally owned acres—which would be called Yellowstone National Park—in northwestern Wyoming and parts of Montana and Idaho would be set aside specifically for public recreation. This action, which was in essence begun over the cutting down of the Big Trees of California, set about a series of global initiatives for the preservation of natural resources and public lands.

During the 1890s, three more national parks were created: Yosemite National Park (1890) in the Sierra Nevada range in California; Sequoia National Park (1890) in California; and Mount Rainier National Park (1899) in the Cascade Range of Washington State. By 1916, the U.S. Congress had created the National Park Service (NPS), a bureau of the Department of the Interior authorized to manage the growing number of national parks and preserves throughout the United States. Although Gale never had any plans to preserve the Big Trees of California, his actions and the publicity for which he received, including the Harper's Weekly article, helped to initiate actions to protect many distinguished trees and other valued natural resources across the United States and around the world.

Part of the area comprising the Big Trees of California became a California state park in 1931 in order to preserve the northern grove of the giant sequoia (redwood) trees. Calaveras Big Trees State Park contains the California Big Tree, or Sequoia gigantean, rather than the distinct species called the Coast Redwood tree, or Sequoia sempervirens. Both trees have pink or red roots and are gigantic in size, but are distinct in bark, foliage, habitat, and reproduction. Today, the park has grown to include the primitive southern grove of Big Trees, consisting of about 6,500 forested acres (2,630 hectares) of mixed conifer trees.


Web sites

Calaveras Big Trees State Park, California State Parks. "Calaveras Big Trees SP." 〈〉 (accessed November 25, 2005).

Environmental History Timeline, Radford University. "The Mother of the Forest." 〈∼wkovarik/envhist/mother.html〉 (accessed November 25, 2005).

The Manufacturer and Builder, Cornell Making of America, Cornell University Library. "The Big Trees of California." 〈〉 (accessed November 25, 2005).

Yosemite National Park. "The Giant Sequoia." 〈〉 (accessed November 25, 2005).