Calaveras Big Trees

No other Giant Sequoia grove illustrates the worst and the best of humanity as Calaveras Big Trees State Park.

I’ve visited other sequoia groves in the Sierras but this was my first visit to the epicenter of this iconic, Californian tree that captured the world’s attention.

The story goes that in 1853, Augustus T. Dowd was tracking a wounded grizzly bear that eventually led him to a massive tree that was over 1,000 years old, the likes of which had never been seen by white European settles before. Of course the native Miwok had known about the sequoias for centuries.

Dowd returned to his camp near Murphys and told all that would listen about his “discovery “. Few believed him so he offered to take a party of nonbelievers to the massive tree, to see for themselves.

The tree that Dowd showed to the party he brought with him is now known as the Discovery Tree. The following year demonstrates man at his worst when five men took 22 days to cut the tree down. No saw was large enough to cut through the massive truck so they drilled hundreds of holes through the tree with pump augers until it eventually fell. The evidence of the destruction is still visible today in the large section of the tree know as the Chip of the Old Block.

The holes drilled in 1854 to take down the Discovery Tree by an auger pump drill are plainly visible today. The Big Stump is visible on the right handed of the picture.

A two foot thick cross section of the giant trunk was cut and along with sections of bark, was sent to San Francisco to be displayed for profit. After being displayed for two months, what was now billed as “The Giant Tree” was packed up and shipped around Cape Horn to be displayed in New York City. The remains of the tree was eventually destroyed in a fire, in 1855. Prompting William Tweed to write in his book King Sequoia, “We can only wonder whether anyone noticed the irony that a tree that had endured for more that 2,000 years in the wild ended up as a commercial exhibit that lasted barely two years.”

This stump that remained in the grove was planned and used as a dance floor prompting John Muir to write, “The vandals then danced upon the stump!” The fallen length of the Discovery Tree was used as a double lane bowling alley and a bar.

Humans finally came to their senses and the grove eventually became protected as a State Park in 1931.

After sketching the Big Stump and Chip Off the Old Block, I continued on the North Grove Loop Trail which provided a great understanding of the natural history of these incredible giants. I stopped to sketch the Empire State Tree.

Further along the loop trail was one of the most striking examples of humans abusing and exploiting the giant sequoia for profit when I saw what remains of the Mother of the Forest tree. It is now a huge, scared and burned snag. In 1884, scaffolding was build around the tree and rose up to 116 feet. The tree was stripped of its bark and the bark was shipped to be reassembled and displayed in places like New York and London. John Muir remarked, “Skinning this tree alive is as sensible a scheme as skinning our great men would be to prove their greatness.” Without its protective bark the tree was severely burned in the fires of 1908. We can only hope that we learned that it is far better to protect these giants than it is to destroy them.

The good is humanity persevered this sequoia grove which still fills modern visitors with awe. Even though I have been to other sequoia groves in the Sierras, the North Grove at Calaveras Big Trees State Park, filled me with reverence for this incredible tree that captured the world’s attention.

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