June 2, 1863: Big Trees
[Today] we left Columbia and went to Murphy’s by a very picturesque road, crossing the Stanislaus where it flows in a valley a thousand feet deep. At Murphy’s we met Mrs. Whitney, and Professor Whitney heard of the severe sickness of a sister in San Francisco, so he dared not go on—so I rode to the Big Trees, the celebrated Calaveras Grove, fifteen miles from Murphy’s. There is a fine stage road over the hills, abounding in rather picturesque views. The way is mostly through an open forest and there is nothing to indicate the near presence of any such vegetable wonders—one is even inclined to doubt the truth of the guideboard which proclaims “1/4 mile to the Big Trees.” One sees nothing to indicate any such thing, until crossing a little hill, one enters the valley and the grove. The first two trees, “The Sentinels,” stand one on each side of the road, like two faithful sentinels, truly, and huge ones they are.
There are about ninety trees of this species in this grove, which is in a valley, sheltered from the winds. The prevailing trees are sugar pine, pitch pine, false cedar (called here arbor vitae), Douglas spruce, and silver fir—all of which grow to a large size, often over two hundred feet high and ten feet in diameter, so the “big trees” always disappoint the visitor. They do not seem as large as they really are, but on acquaintance they grow on the mind, so that in a day or two they can be appreciated in all of their gigantic proportions. I measured over a dozen and found that the measurements popularly given are about correct. I will give the circumferences at three feet from the ground of some that I measured: Pride of the Forest, 60 feet: another, 65; Pioneer’s Cabin, 74; General Scott, 51; Mother and Son, 82; Old Bachelor, 62; Empire State, 67; and so on. Many of them are over three hundred feet high.
The largest trees have fallen. The “Father of the Forest” is prostrate—it is said to be 116 feet around it—it was probably 400 feet high, although it is generally estimated that it was 450 feet high. It is burned in two, affording a fine opportunity to measure it in places. At 195 feet from the base the wood is 9 feet 9 inches in diameter inside of the bark! These measurements I made myself.
One gets the best idea from a prostrate tree. It lies like a wall fifteen to twenty feet high—a carriage might be driven on the trunk. One prostrate tree was hollow; it had burned out and the cavity was large enough for a man to ride through eighty feet of the trunk on horseback! This was called “The Horseback Ride.” Only three days before I arrived it split in pieces and caved in. No one will ride through it again. A man rode through three days before and his horse tracks were fresh on the inside when I arrived.
A tree was felled a few years ago. It took four men twenty-seven days to get it down. It was cut off by boring into it with long augurs. This tree lies there still. The stump is six feet high and about twenty-four feet in diameter inside of the bark. A house is built over the stump to protect it. Stairs of twenty-seven steps carry one up on the prostrate trunk. At thirty feet from the base the diameter is considerably less, or only some thirteen and a half feet. The wood is perfectly sound to the very center. Professor Whitney carefully counted the annual rings four times over at this place (thirty feet from the base) and found the tree there 1,255 years old. It is remarkable that the wood should be sound that was already over eight hundred years old when Columbus set out on his voyage of discovery. The wood is much like red cedar in color and texture, only coarser, and is very brittle.
There is a fine hotel there, well-kept, and it is a most charming place to visit. I stayed two days, with barometer, and found the height to be 4,800 feet above the sea. The bark of some of the larger trees is two feet thick, it has been measured over two feet. There has been much error written about these trees—that there were no young trees, etc. There are trees of all ages and sizes. Six or seven groves are now known, all large, all in valleys at altitudes of 4,500 to 6,000 feet. Large quantities of seeds have been sent to Europe, and one nursery in England has over 200,000 young trees. Probably more groves will be found in this state.