This is the story about two trees. One was named Mammoth Tree, the other Mother of the Forest. The year was 1853 and the place was Calaveras County, California—the same one celebrated in Mark Twain’s story about the jumping frog. The trees’ demise was at the hands of a lunkheaded entrepreneur named George Gale and his merry band of gold prospectors. They gazed upon the oldest and largest living creatures on earth, having sprouted from the soil about the time that Sophocles was writing Antigone, and thought to themselves, “Cutting down these trees will prove to everyone just how manly we are.”
The two trees were Sequoiadendron giganteums, or giant sequoias, a species of conifer that thrives in a small region along the western slope of the Sierra Nevada mountains. Gale was one of the first white men to feast his eyes on their glorious spires. Dollar signs flashed before him. This was the heyday of P. T. Barnum; hucksters everywhere were cashing in on the vogue for natural oddities. All Gale needed to do was saw through the 96-foot diameter of the 290-foot-tall Mammoth Tree, and he would have an impressive cross-section as an artifact to haul across the country on a lucrative tour. Here’s how author Paul Hawken recounts the incident in his 2007 book Blessed Unrest: How the Largest Movement in the World Came into Being and Why No One Saw It Coming:
[Gale’s] quest to fell the sequoia did not go easily. After boring holes through its trunk with long augers, the loggers who had been hired laboriously sawed through the spaces in between. Concerned that a 300-foot-tall sequoia might fall without notice at any time, the men worked cautiously. After being cut all the way through however, the tree remained upright. Wedges were pounded in from all sides, and the crew made a battering ram from nearby lumber to knock it over, but the tree stayed perfectly still. More than three weeks of effort passed, and it finally took a gale to blow it down, which took place in the middle of the night. The noise of its felling woke people in mining camps fifteen miles away. Mud and rock dislodged by the impact flew ten stories into the air, spattering the trunks of neighboring trees. The Big Tree was estimated to be 2,500 years old and remained green for several years because its trunk contained so much water. The promoters removed some of the bark, cut a few cross sections, and left the bulk of the tree where it fell. The trunk was later made smooth and was used as a bowling alley, and the stump became an outdoor dance floor that could comfortably accommodate sixteen couples.
You can still dance on the trunk’s stump today at Calaveras Big Trees State Park. It is now known as Discovery Stump.
Although the felling of the Mammoth Tree was less than a marvel of modern engineering, Gale was just warming up. Another nearby tree in what soon came to be known as Mammoth Tree Grove, was even taller—321 feet. Gale dubbed this beauty the Mother of the Forest. But rather than tussle with a couple millennia’s worth of lumber, he had a better idea. He skinned it!
Workers erected scaffolding to a height of 110 feet and stripped off the 18-inch thick bark around the tree’s circumference. As a traveling trophy, the bark was much easier to pack and ship to various locations around the world than the Mammoth Tree’s room-sized cross-section. Gale shipped the Mother’s bark to New York, where it was reassembled for the amusement of the members of the private and swanky Union Club. A little while later it made its way across the Atlantic Ocean where it was ensconced in Kensington’s Crystal Palace, a building that actually was a marvel of modern engineering. The interior of the bark circle was decorated to look like a drawing room. People were awestruck at man’s dominion over nature. Other people were convinced it was a hoax; no tree was really that big.
While the Mother of the Forest technically survived the brutal de-barking process, it was left without the means to protect itself from the elements. It hung on for decades, its exposed innards turning white, becoming a major tourist attraction in its own right. However, a forest fire—normally a rejuvenating process for the giant sequoias–swept through the area in 1908 and the defenseless tree succumbed to the flames. A similar fate befell it’s bark-cum-drawing room. It, too, was destroyed in a fire in 1866.
In the 1850s much of California was still the Wild West. There was no one to stop Gale from doing what he did. But he was, perhaps, a victim of his own success. Once news got out about the gargantuan trees being cut down for fun and profit, a few influential people expressed outrage.
One of these people was the editor of the New York Tribune, Horace Greeley. He called the actions of Gale and other loggers that flocked to the region “vandalism.” He traveled to the Yosemite Valley to see the its magnificent flora first hand and was amply awestruck. Right then and there he called on the government to protect “the most beautiful trees on earth.”
Maturin Ballou, editor of the influential magazine Gleason’s Pictorial Drawing Room Companion, called the destruction of the Mammoth Tree “a perfect desecration. . . . What in the world could have possessed any mortal to embark in such speculation with this mountain of wood?”
The New York Tribune published an editorial stating that “the State of California and the Congress of the Union should interpose to preserve these trees, as the living proofs that the boasted monarchs of the wood of the Old World are but stunted shrubbery compared with the forest giants of our own country. . . . it is the duty of the State of California, of Congress, and of all good citizens, to protect and to preserve these California monuments of the capabilities of our American soil.” American exceptionalism is perfectly conveyed by the snarky teenaged attitude of the writers–calling the flora of Europe “stunted shrubbery”–but you can’t argue that they should be protected and preserved.
In 1864 Senator John Conness of California proposed a land grant bill to protect Yosemite Valley and the nearby grove of giant sequoias. The bill passed and Abraham Lincoln diverted his attention from the Civil War just long enough to sign that bad boy into law. Just eight years later Yosemite became the country’s first national park. The conservation movement was off to a fantastic start and a whole new generation of influential people, from Teddy Roosevelt to John Muir to Ansel Adams, soon propelled it to even greater heights.