Back in the year 1852 in Calaveras County, a little to the north of
where Sequoia and General Grant National Parks were destined to be
formed just a few decades later, a grove of giant sequoias was
discovered by a party of hunters. One of the hunters, a Mr. A. T.
Dowd, had shot and wounded a grizzly bear and was chasing the bear
through the forest, trying to catch him and finish him off. The bear’s
trail led him through a part of the forest where he’d never before
been and, intent upon following the bear’s tracks, he suddenly looked
up to find himself standing at the base of an overwhelmingly large
tree. He looked around, and saw that he was surrounded by dozens of
trees just like it. Well, Dowd immediately forgot all about the bear
he’d been trailing and hurried back to camp to tell the other hunters
about what he’d found.
However, as Fate would have it, the date of this event happened to be
April First, and all the other hunters just laughed at him since they
thought he was pulling an April Fools’ joke on them. The more graphic
he grew with his descriptions, the harder they laughed. So finally
Dowd gave up in frustration, but he just couldn’t forget about that
huge tree. So he decided he’d wait a while before he tried again.
Then, a few days later, Dowd returned to camp and told his fellow
hunters about this huge grizzly bear he’d seen - the hugest grizzly
anyone had ever seen, he assured them, and went on to say how he’d
shot and killed it but it was too big to move; too big for just one
man to cut up and pack out even a tiny portion of all that meat.
Well, since they were hunters, this got their attention. So the next
day they all eagerly followed Dowd into the mountains where he led
them to the base of the giant tree he’d discovered and proudly told
them, ‘Well, boys, there’s my grizzly bear! Now what do you think?’
Well, to put it mildly, they were impressed. So they went on back to
Murphy’s Camp and told the tale of this grove of huge trees they had
found in the mountains. Word spread, and others started coming to see
This leads us to the (anti) hero of our story – a Mr. George Gale,
who, two years later in 1854, rode into what had come to be known as
the Calaveras Grove. He was overwhelmed and amazed by these huge
trees, but quickly recovered and immediately tried to figure out how
he could financially profit from them. George Gale was a smart man,
and he didn’t sit there on his horse envisioning, like others to
follow, the formation of a huge logging company involving lots of
investors and even more husky men with axes. Nor did he even
contemplate just taking down one huge tree and shipping it out of the
forest. And he didn’t pick the biggest tree and cut it down, because
he couldn’t think of a way of moving it once he did. George Gale
wanted to make money, but he wanted to do so with a minimal investment
of time, money, and effort.
So what George Gale decided to do was to first go out and find the
largest tree still standing tree in the grove. That wasn’t difficult,
as it had already been found and a sign had been tacked to it, naming
it ‘The Mother of the Forest’. So in 1854 George Gale hired a crew of
men not to cut it down, but to build scaffolding around the tree and
then strip the bark completely off of it from the base all the way up
to the first branch, which was 116 feet up from the ground. The pieces
of bark measured from six inches to two feet thick.
He had the pieces of bark sectioned and numbered so they could be
reassembled back east, where he planned to do a tour of New York,
Boston, Philadelphia, and other large cities; places where he could
reassemble the pieces and charge people to see them. And that’s
exactly what he did – shipping them by wagons to San Francisco, then
by ship around South America and back up to the East Coast of the
United States. At this point both Mr. Gale and his shipload of bark
fade from the pages of history, and nothing is known as to their fate.
However, we do know what happened to the Mother of the Forest.
A Sequoia tree can’t live very long without its bark to protect it,
and the tree died within a year. Its dead carcass remained standing
until 1908 when a fire swept through the Calaveras Grove. The living
Sequoia trees were largely unscathed by the flames while what was left
of the Mother of the Forest was mostly destroyed. A snag of wood about
a hundred feet tall is still standing. The Mother of the Forest was
321 feet tall when she lived, and over 2500 years old.
George Gale didn’t take the largest tree in the Calaveras Grove
because the largest tree in this grove had actually already fallen
before he got there in 1854. The largest tree in this grove also had a
sign nailed to it - The Father of the Forest. Well, when he saw that
the Father of the Forest was already laying on the ground, George Gale
decided that he wanted a tree of his own. So he didn’t bother to try
to salvage pieces from the Father. Which was too bad – not only
because he mutilated another tree, but also because he passed up a
chance to salvage pieces from what may well have been the largest tree
ever to have grown on the entire planet.
Every year millions of people come from all over the world to Kings
Canyon and Sequoia National Parks to see the General Grant Tree and
the General Sherman Tree, the two largest living trees in the world.
And while they are here they learn that both trees are around 270 feet
tall – give or take a few feet, and that both are close to being two
thousand years old, give or take a couple of centuries. But that’s not
anywhere near to what The Father of the Forest measured. While the
Father was laid out on the ground, they measured its length to be 435
feet from base to tip, taller by far than any living Sequoia tree;
taller than even the tallest of the Coastal Redwoods. At its base it
measured 110 feet in circumference, which is larger than either the
General Sherman or the General Grant. And by counting the rings in the
tree they estimated it to be 3500 years old. There’s no record of what
happened to the Father of the Forest, although it’s assumed that it
was gradually cut up over the years and the pieces taken away for
souvenirs or firewood. So the Father of the Forest just disappeared,
while the Mother of the Forest was stripped where she stood, a
fire-scarred hundred foot snag all that is left to mark her two and a
half millennia on this earth.
With a degree in Anthropology and an avid interest in history, Tim Christensen has lived in the Sierra Nevada Mountains for many years. He has no cell phone or television, but manages, when not chopping firewood or shoveling snow, to keep himself entertained with a library of several thousand books.
Sequoia Parks Conservancy, the official 501.c.3 nonprofit partner of Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks (National Park Service) and Lake Kaweah (U.S. Army Corps of Engineers), uses tax-deductible contributions to support these parks.
Sequoia Parks Conservancy