Trees and Lumbering in California by Ella M. Sexton


The largest trees in the world are those forest giants of California which grow on the western slopes of the Sierra Nevadas, and nowhere else on the globe. People carelessly call these grand trees "redwoods" or "big trees," but their family name is Sequoia, an Indian chief's name. When the trees were first discovered, in 1853, accounts of their height and size were sent to England. Supposing this giant to be a new tree, it was there christened Wellingtonia, and also gigantea for its immense measurements. While Americans were trying to have it called Washingtonia, a famous Frenchman who knew all about trees decided that the specimen sent him was certainly a sequoia, as named by a German professor some six years before this time. So the tree was called sequoia gigantea and quietly went on growing, unmindful of the four nations who had quarrelled over its christening. Why, indeed, should it bother its lofty head with the chatter of people whose countries were unknown when this mighty tree was full grown? For these sequoias are the oldest of living objects and have probably been growing for four thousand years. How do we know this? Well, when a fallen trunk is sawed across, one can see rings in the wood, and it is thought that each ring is a year's growth. John Muir counted over four thousand of these annual rings on the stump of one of the Kings River trees.

These fine old trees grow in groves, and of the nine or ten groves the Calaveras and Mariposa are the best known. The Calaveras group of nearly a hundred mighty trees was the first one discovered, and four trees here are over three hundred feet high. The fallen "Father of the Forest" must have been much higher, for it measures a hundred feet round its trunk at the root end. A man can ride on horseback for two hundred feet through its hollow trunk as it lies on the ground. Many of the standing trees hollowed out by fires are large enough, used as cabins, to live in.

  'WAWONA' (28 feet in diameter).
(28 feet in diameter).

  THE GRIZZLY GIANT (33 feet in diameter).
(33 feet in diameter).

The Mariposa grove of Big Trees, being not far from Yosemite Valley, is the best known, as thousands of tourists visit both places. There is a big tree at Mariposa for every day in the year, and two very wonderful ones, the Grizzly Giant and Wawona. Stage-coaches drive into the grove through the tree Wawona, which was bored and burned out so as to make an opening ten by twelve feet. A wall of wood ten feet thick on each side of this opening supports the living tree. The great Grizzly Giant towers a hundred feet without a branch, and twice that height above the first immense branches that are six feet through. This was, no doubt, an old tree when Columbus discovered America, yet it is alive and green and still growing.

The largest tree in the world is the General Sherman, in Sequoia National Park, and it is thirty-five feet in diameter. This means that the stump of the tree, if smoothed off, would make a floor on which thirty people might dance, or your whole class be seated. You can scarcely imagine what a mighty column such a tree is, with its rich red-brown bark, fluted like a column, too, and with its crown of feathery green branches and foliage. The bark is a foot or two thick. The trees are evergreens, and conifers, or cone-bearers. Sequoia cones are two or three inches long and full of small seeds. The Douglas squirrel gets most of these seeds, but there are still seedlings and saplings or young trees enough to keep the race alive in most of the groves.

These groves of wonderful and rare trees are protected as National Parks in the Sequoia and Grant groves, and Mariposa belongs to the state. It is against the law to cut the trees in those groves. Their worst enemy is fire, and a troop of cavalry is sent every year to guard them, and to keep out the sheep-herders, whose flocks would destroy the underbrush and young trees. But, unfortunately, lumbermen have put up mills near the Fresno and Kings River groups, and, wasting more than they use, are destroying magnificent trees thousands of years old in order to make shingles. When nature has taken such good care of this rare and wonderful tree, the Sierra Giant, men should try to preserve the groves unharmed in all their beauty.

Another sequoia grows in great forests along the Coast Range from Santa Cruz to the northern state-line, and beyond into Oregon. This is the sequoia sempervirens, the Latin name meaning always green. Redwood is its common name, and the lumber for our frame or wooden houses is cut from this tree. Millions of feet of this redwood lumber are shipped from the northern counties of the state every year, up to Alaska or down to Central and South America. It is also sent far across the Pacific to the Hawaiian and Philippine islands and to China and Australia.

While the sequoia gigantea delights in a clear sky and hot sunshine, its brother, the sempervirens, prefers a cool sea-coast climate, offering frequent baths of fog. There is also a difference in the size of these trees; the redwood is often three hundred feet high, but is less in girth than its relative in the Sierras. There is not much underbrush and little sunshine in the cool, green redwood forests, each tree rising tall and stately for a hundred feet without branches, while the green tops seem almost to touch the sky as one looks up. Through the woods one hears the blue jay scream and chatter, and the tap, tap of the woodpecker as he drills holes in the bark to fill with acorns for his winter store.

When the lumberman looks at these beautiful forests, he sees only many logs containing many thousand feet of lumber, which he must get out the easiest and cheapest way. He only chooses the finest and largest trunks, and there is great waste in cutting these. The men begin to saw the tree some eight or ten feet from the ground, and soon it trembles and falls with a mighty crash, often snapping off other trees in its way to the ground. After all the selected trees have fallen, fires are started to burn off the branches and underbrush so that the men can work easier. This fire only chars the outside bark of the big, green logs, but it kills all the young saplings, and leaves the once beautiful forest a waste of blackened logs and gray ashes. When the fire burns itself out, the logs are usually sawed with a cross-cut saw into sixteen-foot lengths, since in that form they are easy to handle. Then oxen or horses haul them out; or sometimes a wire cable is fastened to them by iron "dogs," or stakes, and a little stationary engine pulls them away to the siding at the railroad track. Here they are rolled on flat-cars, fastened with a big iron chain around the four or six logs on the car, and taken on the logging train to the mill-pond. They lie soaking in the water until drawn up to the keen saws of the sawmill that cut and slice the wood like cheese. The bark and outside is carved off as you would cut the crust off bread, and then sharp, circular saws cut boards and planks till the log is used up, and the log-carriage lifts another to its place. As the shining steel bites into the wood the noise almost deafens you and the mill shakes with the thunder of log-carriage and feeders. Useless ends, slabs, and refuse are burnt in the sawdust pit, where the fires never go out. Very much of the tree is wasted and all the limbs. The redwood tree has so much life and strength, however, that it sends up bright green sprouts around the burnt stump, and standing trees charred outside to the tops will have new branches the next season. In the older forests tall young trees are often seen growing in a ring round an empty spot, the long-dead stump having rotted away.


Near Santa Cruz is a grove of large and beautiful redwoods, many of the trees being over three hundred feet high and from forty to sixty-five feet around the base of the trunk. The Giant is the largest, and three other immense ones are named for Generals Grant, Sherman, and Fremont. In 1846 General Fremont found this grove, and camped, on a rainy winter night, in the hollow trunk of the tree bearing his name. Here is also seen a group of eleven very tall trees growing in a circle around an old stump.

In the Sierras, both in the sequoia groves and forests above the Big-Tree region, are very large sugar-pines, red firs, and yellow-pine trees, all of which make excellent lumber. Great forests of these trees, with cedars almost as large as the redwoods, are in the northern counties also. You may have seen sugar-pine cones which are over a foot long, the largest of all found, while redwood cones are the smallest. Another great tree is the Douglas spruce, the king of spruce trees, growing in both Sierra Nevada and Coast ranges.

The California laurel, or bay tree, with its beautiful, shining green leaves, and the madroño, the slender, red-barked tree on the hillsides you must have noticed in your trips to the country, as well as our fine valley and mountain oaks. Try to learn the kinds of trees and study their leaves, blossoms, and fruit, and you will find every one a friend well worth knowing. Then you will wish to save them from fire and the lumberman's axe, especially the rare and old sequoias.