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Part 3 – Big Trees State Park, Calaveras County, California – Exploitation of the Sequoias
Calaveras Big Trees State Park’s “Discovery Tree” is one of the first trees that were exploited to prove that this incredible grove exists. Located in the North Grove, the tree stump and what’s left of the its trunk have lain on the ground for over 150 years. The fallen trunk actually served as a bowling alley and bar during the 1850s. The stump of the “Discovery Tree” was used as a dance floor for a 4th of July 1854 cotillion. Felled in 1853, it measured 24 feet in diameter at its base and was judged by ring count to be 1,244 years old when it was cut down.
The “Discovery Tree’s” stump, which is now bare, also once had a structure built on its flat surface. Used as a dance hall during the 19th century, the stump has been returned to its natural state; if dead can be considered to be natural. Its top can be reached by a staircase. The tree was so massive that logging saws of the day proved to be insufficient to cut it down. Instead, hundreds of holes were drilled through the trunk until the tree toppled over. Those drilling marks can still be seen, below, in the section of trunk that lies beside the stump. It’s all very amazing and sad.
Another massive tree, stretching 321 feet into the air, with a circumference of 90 feet at ground level, was the largest of 92 Giant Sequoias growing in the valley when it was discovered in 1852 and was named the “Mother of the Forest.”
It was then decided that, since this massive tree was so impressive, it could somehow be sent on a money-making tour around the country. Of course, you couldn’t easily move a tree that was nearly the height of the interior of St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, England and as wide as some grain silos. In order to create a portable display, they removed much of the tree’s bark, which could be numbered and reassembled over a support structure to create a nearly lifelike exhibition of the tree’s immensity. It was even transported over to England for display at the Crystal Palace exhibition hall just south of London.
Unfortunately, stripping a tree of its bark will kill a tree. The process is called girdling and was used by woodsmen to kill a tree while it was still standing so that the wood would age and dry out; making it easier to later cut down and use for firewood. Once the bark was removed, the tree could not survive for long; since the outer layers of bark on a tree trunk carry nutrients and water up and down the tree’s trunk. Woodsmen removed the bark from the “Mother of the Forest” by cutting it into sections, in some places up to 2 feet thick. A good portion of the tree’s trunk was laid bare. There was no intent to use the rest of the tree. It was just left standing; to slowly die. Saw marks made when the bark was cut away are still visible on the trunk. The sawn puzzle pieces of bark were sent on tour; where, as you can see in the drawing above, left, they were reassembled into a tower resembling a huge “stave silo” used on farms to store grain.
In 1908, a fire swept through the forest and burned away much of what was left of the tree. To this day, all that is left of the “Mother of the Forest” is a huge fire-blackened stump. It stands more than 100 feet tall and is located at the far end of the trail through the North Grove.
Having never seen a tree so large, many people who visited the exhibition walked away, dismissing the display as a hoax. In fact, some people did accept the display as real, but complained about the sin of destroying these amazing trees. What a waste of such a wonder of nature! By the way, samples of the tree were sent to foresters in the east where it was discovered that it was 2,520 years old!
Until they became protected in 1931, more of the trees were cut down, some in an attempt to harvest the trees as logs destined for sawmills. Because the wood of a Sequoia is so brittle, many of them shattered as they hit the ground. Loggers tried to prevent this by building beds out of smaller trees to break the Sequoia’s fall. All in all, logging these trees was a commercial and ecological disaster. Of those trees that were not cut down, 1,100 of them still stand in Big Trees S.P. and others lie where they have fallen, blown down during storms (the Sequoias are strangely shallow rooted) or felled by woodsmen in the North and South Groves. The groves remain a major tourist attraction.
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