Celebrating Conservation’s Important Moments In History

Tourists inspecting the stump of the 'Mammoth Tree' in Calaveras County, California, c1860. The 'Mother of the Forest', without its bark, can be seen in the background. Image: LoC

Tourists inspecting the stump of the ‘Mammoth Tree’ in Calaveras County, California, c1860. The ‘Mother of the Forest’, without its bark, can be seen in the background. Image: LoC

We have written about and sometimes celebrated important moments in conservation history in the past, and these celebrations are among those most responded to by readers of this blog.  A few days ago, a landmark anniversary was observed in an editorial at the newspaper that most consistently keeps us in perspective:

Today marks the 160th anniversary of a seminal, but largely forgotten moment in the history of the conservation movement.

On Monday, 27 June, 1853, a giant sequoia – one of the natural world’s most awe-inspiring sights – was brought to the ground by a band of gold-rush speculators in Calaveras county, California. It had taken the men three weeks to cut through the base of the 300ft-tall, 1,244-year-old tree, but finally it fell to the forest floor.

A section of the bark from the “Mammoth Tree”, as newspapers soon described it, had already been removed and was sent to San Francisco to be put on display. The species had only been “discovered” (local Native American tribes such as the Miwok had known of the trees for centuries) that spring by a hunter who stumbled upon the pristine grove in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada whilst chasing an injured bear. Word of the discovery quickly spread.

In the age of PT Barnum’s freak shows, the speculators, mostly gold miners, had sensed a commercial opportunity. The section of bark – re-erected using scaffold, with a piano inside to entertain paying visitors – would later be sent to Broadway in New York, as would the bark from a second tree felled a year later. The bark of the “Mother of the Forest” – as the second tree was named – would even go on to be displayed at London’s Crystal Palace causing great excitement and wonder in Victorian England before it was destroyed by fire on 30 December 1866. (The bark of the original mammoth tree was also lost to fire as it lay in storage in New York in 1855. A fitting end, perhaps, as fire plays such a crucial role in the life cycle of giant sequoias.)

The fame of the trees was such that a hotel was quickly built at the site to host the influx of tourists. To entertain the guests, tea dances were regularly held on the stump of the mammoth tree and a bowling alley was built on the now prone trunk. (This page has a wonderful range of images of the Mammoth Tree and the Mother of the Forest.)

The remarkable, engaging story of these two doomed trees is too detailed to be told here, but what is worth recalling on this anniversary is the reaction their destruction caused in the media at the time – and its subsequent effect on some progressive politicians a decade later when they cited their felling and exploitation as an inspiration to establish what later came to be known as the US national park system.

Two people standing on the stump of the 'Mammoth Tree' at Calaveras Big Trees State Park, California. Photograph: Jeff Compasso/Alamy

Two people standing on the stump of the ‘Mammoth Tree’ at Calaveras Big Trees State Park, California. Photograph: Jeff Compasso/Alamy

Was the outrage expressed by some in the popular media of the day evidence of the first stirrings of an environmental consciousness in the US? It would be wrong to assess such statements without noting the historical context of that age – a time of the “manifest destiny” when nature was viewed as a God-given resource for Mankind to exploit – but it is also hard to ignore the clear outrage and bemusement among some commentators that such magnificent natural specimens had been brutalised in this way.

According to Gary D Lowe, a local historian, author and “Big Tree” aficionado, the first-known negative commentary came a month before the tree was felled. An article in the Sonora Herald, a local newspaper, reported that Captain Hanford, the man leading the enterprise, “is about stripping off the bark”. The report went on: “This will of course kill the tree, which is much to be deprecated.”

On 27 June, 1853 – the same day the tree finally fell – a report in San Francisco’s Placer Times and Transcript also noted an article, again in the Sonora Herald, expressing regret that Captain Hanford was preparing for a “portion of the mammoth tree” to be sent to New York.

“Amator” [Latin for “friend”] is dreadfully shocked at the vandalism and barbarity of flaying that giant of the woods, and depriving California of its greatest “growing” exponent.

However, the same report also goes on to say that the stripping of the tree’s bark is “characteristic of California enterprise” and that Hanford’s efforts to exhibit the bark in New York will allow “millions of the inhabitants of the earth to see it, has rendered his adopted state a lasting benefit, given to science a page, and the world a natural curiosity”. So any sadness at the tree’s demise was counteracted by the boost to local pride.

Click here to read the whole editorial.

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