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November 9, 1863: Crescent City

November 9, 2013

Prairie Creek 02

Prairie Creek area, Redwood National Park; by Tom Hilton, on Flickr

[Today] I walked to Crescent City, sixteen miles. I descended from these barren hills, and soon a marvelous change in the vegetation came on the scene. I passed through a forest, called everywhere “The Redwoods,” a forest of redwood timber—and such forests the world probably does not show elsewhere.

As I have before told you, the redwood is a sort of gigantic cedar. It has foliage like the hemlock, and wood like coarse, poor red cedar. The forest is narrow, and mostly made up of gigantic trees—large groups of trees, each ten to fifteen feet in diameter, and over two hundred feet in height, the straight trunks rising a hundred feet without a limb. The bark is very thick and lies in great ridges, so that the trunks seem like gigantic fluted columns supporting the dense canopy of foliage overhead. They generally swell out at the bottom, so that a tree but ten feet in diameter at thirty feet high, will be fifteen or more at the ground. They grow so abundant that the sun cannot penetrate through the dense and deep mass of foliage above. A damp shady atmosphere pervades the forests, and luxuriant ferns and thick underwood often clothe the ground. Large trees fall, mosses and ferns grow over the prostrate trunks, trees spring up among them on the thick decaying bark. The wood is so durable that a century may elapse before the fallen giant decays and mingles with its mother earth. In the meantime, trees a century old have grown on it, their bases twelve to fifteen feet from the ground, sustained on great arches of roots that once encircled the prostrate log upon which they germinated. A man may ride on horseback under some of these great arches.

The wood is soft and brittle, like pine. Fire sometimes in the summer spreads through the woods. The thick bark protects the large trees, but the fire often gets into the wood and burns out the dry center, leaving a cavity as large as a small house. A reliable gentleman, Doctor Mason, told me that once caught in a storm he with his four companions sought shelter in one of these hollows. They built a fire, and the five men with their five horses passed the night in this novel shelter! I fully believe the story.

At times a number of trees start from the same base—an immense woody mass thirty to forty feet in diameter, with half a dozen huge trunks rising from this great gnarled base. Mosses accumulate in the hollows and nooks, bushes and ferns take root and grow parasitic among the trees to a great height, trailing lichens festoon from the branches and give a somber look to the dense shade. I saw in one place a tree six to eight inches in diameter that had taken root thirty or forty feet from the ground on the trunk of a larger tree, its roots twining like great serpents over the bark until they reached the ground.

The largest tree that I measured was fifty-eight feet in circumference, and looked three hundred feet high. It was perfectly symmetrical. Much larger trees are reported at various places along the coast. These trees belong to the same genus with the Big Tree of the Sierra. There are two species of the genus: one only in the Sierra, the other only near the sea—both of them grand wonders of the vegetable world. The amount of timber in one of these trees is almost incredible. A man will build a house and barn from one of them, fence a field, probably, in addition, and leave an immense mass of brush and logs as useless.

These forests have almost an oppressive effect upon the mind. A deep silence reigns; almost the only sound is that of some torrent coming down from the mountains, or the distant roar of the surf breaking upon the shore of the Pacific.

A restless genius who has seen much of the world and of adventure, but is yet poor, has conceived the idea of a speculation in one of these trees, which is rather novel. There is a large tree near Trinidad so near the water that he proposes to build a large boat of it and launch it—cut from a single tree, like a canoe, but modeled like a schooner. He says he can have a boat of twenty-four or twenty-five foot beam, and eighty to one hundred feet long, and have the sides, the bottom, and floor of the grand saloon of the natural wood, the interior being dug out of the solid tree. A great saloon fifteen to eighteen feet wide in the widest part, but tapering aft, and sixty or seventy feet long, would be fitted up in it. A vessel of over three hundred tons register, or near five hundred tons burden could thus be built! He proposes to take his novel craft to the larger seaports of the world and make a fortune by its exhibition. However, he will probably never have the means to carry it out.

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