One hundred and thirty-seven years ago, well before the Calaveras North Grove was purchased by the California State Park System and renamed the Calaveras Big Trees State Park, the land’s owners carved an enormous hole in the base of one of its sequoia trees. On Sunday, that tree fell.
This particular, 150-foot tall tree boasted a wide base — about 33 feet in diameter — which featured a large fire scar, an attribute that makes it easier to tunnel through. And that’s exactly what the owners created, a tunnel wide enough for an automobile to drive through.
The idea of passing through an enormous tree immediately proved to be a hit. Named the Pioneer’s Cabin Tree because the created chamber exposed the trunk’s hollowness, giving it a chimneylike appearance and calling to mind the image of an old log cabin, the tree quickly became one of the park’s most popular features.
Curious tourists would come from around the country to etch their names into its bark. Photos from the 1800s show visitors staring up into its great expanse, awe etched on their faces.
Around 2 p.m. Sunday, with names carved more than a century ago still prominent on its great trunk, the gargantuan tree fell to the ground after being pummeled by a particularly vicious winter storm.
“This iconic and still living tree — the tunnel tree — enchanted many visitors, the Calaveras Big Tree Association wrote in a Facebook post. “The storm was just too much for it.”
Jim Allday, a park volunteer who was working at the time, told the Los Angeles Times the tree “shattered” when it hit the forest ground. Photos posted by the association appear to confirm this verb choice, showing enormous wood splinters interspersed with snow, the informational placard still on display for visitors.
According to Allday, visitors had wandered through the tree earlier that very day.
It’s not entirely clear why this storm felled the great tree, though the San Francisco Chronicle opined that it “probably had to do with the giant sequoia’s shallow root system — the roots only go about two or four feet deep — and the fact that the trail around the tree was flooded due to rain.”
“When I went out there (Sunday afternoon), the trail was literally a river, the trail is washed out,” Allday told the newspaper. “I could see the tree on the ground, it looked like it was laying in a pond or lake with a river running through it.”
Though the park eventually closed off the tree to cars, instead creating a 1.5-mile loop trail allowing hikers to walk through it, it remained one of the park’s most popular features, according to the Chronicle.
That was evident in the 1,500 comments on the association’s Facebook announcement of the tree’s fall, which was shared about 8,500 times as of early Monday morning.
Which means it fulfilled its original purpose, which was to compete with the Wawona Tree in the nearby Yosemite National Park. The North Grove’s owners carved out the Pioneer Cabin tree in response to the 1881 carving of that tree.
Much like the Pioneer Tree did for the North Grove, the Wawona Tree became an extremely popular tourist attraction for those visiting Yosemite. While its fame reached far and wide — the National Park Service claimed that some tourists still seek it, albeit often in the wrong park — it didn’t last nearly as long as the Pioneer Cabin tree.
In 1969, at the ripe old age of 2,100 years old, the 234-foot tree crashed to the ground during, as luck would have it, a winter storm.
One of the reasons for the falling of both trees might be the very thing that attracted visitors to them in the first place. These trees are made to burn, their protective bark healing itself over time. Carving into a fire scar slows this progress.
As written in a guide to the Calaveras Big Trees State Park, “Sierra redwoods evolved in the presence of fire, and not only have adapted to it, but depend on it in several ways. Heat from fire causes the cones to open and release the seeds. Fire clears the ground of duff, litter, and brush so the tiny seeds can reach the mineral soil and receive plenty of sunshine. … The opening (in the Pioneer Cabin tree) has reduced the ability of the tree to resist fire. A few branches bearing green foliage tell us that this tree is still managing to survive.”