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Granite Crags (1884) by Constance Gordon-Cumming



Calaveras, July 3d.

I have just returned from an enchanting expedition to the great South Grove, which lies along the Stanislaus river and the Beaver Creek, about six miles from here. It is the largest Big Tree colony which has yet been discovered, 1300 Sequoias of over one foot in diameter having been counted in a belt of forest about three miles in length, by two in width.

I found here two American girls, who had come alone, about 3000 miles, from Boston and Detroit, to see the lions of California; so we agreed to ride over together, escorted by “Mike,” a Franco-German guide. We followed a beautiful but very steep trail, up high ridges and down into deep gorges, commanding ever-varying views, and at every turn we became more and more deeply impressed with the indescribable grandeur of these glorious coniferous forests—the vast, beautiful wilderness, where rarely a human ear catches the murmur of the lullabies which winds and rushing river sing ceaselessly to the mountains and pine-forests.

Tall green spires crown every ridge, and rise in clusters from the lower levels: grand trees of larch-like growth, middle-aged, hoary, dead; some lightning-stricken, standing ghastly and bleached—some lying prostrate, half buried in moss, and veiled by a rich undergrowth of aspen, dwarf spruce, and cotton-wood.

We rode past tall sugar-pines, so exquisite in their elegance that I could have lingered beside them for hours; but of course the one aim and object of our pilgrimage was to visit the biggest trees, and we certainly have seen giants! We all rode into one hollow tree (a burnt hollow, as usual) in which there is room for seventeen horsemen to take refuge with their beasts. I sketched another which measures 120 feet in circumference. If you will take the trouble to measure a string of that length, and peg out a circle on the lawn, it will give you some notion of how large a very old Sequoia really is. (There is one about fifteen feet larger than this in Southern California!)

Several of the grandest trees have been blown over—not recently, but in some terrific tempest long ages ago. One of these is called Goliath. In falling, it sank into the earth for a depth of fully four feet; and yet, as I rode alongside of it, though I was on a very tall horse, my head did not reach half-way up the side of the stem. Some one measured it about 150 feet from the root, and found it was 45 feet round even there. So he could have cut out a sound block of wellnigh imperishable wood 15 feet square by 150 feet long! Only think how many centuries it must have taken to grow!

We remarked, with much wonder, how very few young Sequoias seem to be growing up; and I am told that throughout the northern forests the same thing has been observed, and that many of the old trees are childless. It is almost feared that in these groves the species is doomed to extinction.

In the southern belts, however, the young trees grow heartily everywhere, multitudes of seedlings and saplings springing up alike in rich moist meadows and on rocky ledges and moraines. So there, the danger of extinction lies not in natural causes, but in the ravages of the sheep-feeders and lumberers, who not only cut the young timber, but, when clearing the ground for fresh operations, burn the refuse, and so destroy thousands of seedlings.

If less gem-like in its compactness, the South Grove is certainly more free from trace of man’s marring hand than beautiful Calaveras, and possesses the undoubted charm of being a comparatively untrodden portion of the great primeval forest. Doubtless a solitary wanderer might here run a fair chance of falling in with bears and deer; but I need scarcely say that our wary fellow-creatures gave us no chance of seeing them to-day.

In this South Grove the hazel grows even more abundantly than at Calaveras, and we gathered quantities of nuts without even dismounting. There are also a great many wild gooseberries, which are pleasant to the taste; but each berry is so covered with sharp prickles that you cannot bite it, but must cut it open with a knife. I am glad that our domestic gooseberry requires no such manipulation!

Our homeward ride was, if possible, more lovely than the morning, the tender dreamy lights of evening blending all harsh tones of earth in one soft haze, throwing a velvety richness over the forests, and combining all shades of russet and gold, green, grey, and purple,—a world of rich colouring, all subdued and glorified.

There goes the bell for tea! No unwelcome sound, I assure you!

I forgot to tell you that we saw an unusually large rattlesnake. Mike made for him, but the wily snake escaped.

A gentleman from the Eastern States arrived here yesterday, and has been giving me a glowing description of his travels in Southern California, which has impressed him as a sort of earthly Paradise. And no wonder, for he left his home in New England in the bleakest February weather, and ten days later he was riding over wide plains already aglow with spring blossoms; and in the month of March he was camping out in the south of the magnificent San Joaquin valley, gorgeous with all hues of the rainbow. On every side he beheld vast prairies, literally ablaze with colour; the various flowers, not scattered as in European fields, but massed, so that one colour predominates, producing broad belts of blue or crimson, scarlet or gold, each extending for perhaps a square mile, like a succession of vast flower-beds scattered over an interminable lawn of the loveliest green, which is produced by the alfilleria, the native grass of California.

Far as the eye could reach, this gorgeous carpet lay out-spread, fading in the dim distance as it crept up the foothills of the Sierra Nevada, or the Coast Range, which, encompassing the great valley on the right hand and on the left, meet at its southern extremity, where the foliage is richest, and the magnificent ilex and other oaks, lie grouped as in a stately English park.

As yet the settlers in this natural Paradise are few in number, and many shy wild creatures still roam here almost undisturbed. My new acquaintance told me of his delight when, after riding for days through the fragrant flower-strewn pastures (always knee-deep, and often reaching to his saddle), he found himself on the reedy shores of the great Tulare lake, which was literally alive with wild-fowl of various sorts,—canvas-back ducks and snipe by the hundred, and wild geese innumerable. Of the latter, he saw one flock so vast that as they flew they seemed to cover the heavens; the rustling sound of their wings was like the rushing of a wild stormy wind, and their cries were deafening. As they settled down, flapping their white and grey wings in the sunlight, it seemed as if the blue lake were breaking in white foam for a distance of a couple of miles.

The tules or reeds, from which the lake takes its name, form a capital covert for herds of wild hogs, descendants of tame breeds, but now offering fair sport. His account agrees exactly with what other men have told me of that district, except that those who arrived later in the season found that the flowery prairie was transformed into a dusty plain, with all vegetation dried up and withered,—a parched and thirsty land. But in spring-time it must be a glorious country for sportsmen and camping-parties, being as yet very thinly peopled.

It has the advantage of a perfect climate; for though the south of San Joaquin valley is hot, it is a dry heat, from which people suffer far less than from an average summer in the Eastern States. The thermometer does sometimes rise to 100° in the shade, but is found less oppressive than 90° on the east coast; and the nights are always cool. It seems a good proof of a healthy climate to hear how robust and rosy all the resident women and children appear to be.

The annual supply of rain is bound to fall between November and April, and during all the rest of the year a shower is a rare and rather startling event; so there is no fear of chill or cold, and little camping-gear is required. With dry turf for a mattress, and a wide-spreading oak for a canopy, a pair of blankets and a quilt may suffice for bedding. A camping-party would of course ride, and take a waggon to carry their quilts and necessary supplies.

By the latter half of March they would find the country in its spring beauty, and the air balmy and exhilarating. Excellent fishing and shooting, free to all comers, without money and without price, are to be had on the Kern river, and also till quite recently on the Buena Vista and Kern lakes, where large trout were abundant; and quantities of snipe, duck, cranes, wild swans, and all manner of wild-fowl and other creatures, were wont to breed on the reedy shores where beaver and otter lived undisturbed. But the diligent settlers have worked their irrigation and drainage works so vigorously, that both these lakes, with the marshes surrounding them, have been dried up, and the shy, man-fearing creatures have had to seek more remote hiding-places.

Even the great Tulare lake itself is in danger of being gradually absorbed by the numerous canals and ditches with which the whole country is now being intersected; and as water is the chief boon to be desired by all the colonists, the very existence of the lake is threatened, and the peace of its denizens is already wellnigh at an end.

The poor lakes have simply been left to starve—the rivers, whose surplus waters hitherto fed them, having now been bridled and led away in ditches and canals to feed the great wheat-fields.

So it is to the hills, rather than to the low ground, that the sportsman must now betake him. The scenery is beautiful, including rivers and wooded foot-hills stretching back to the highest Sierras. The vast tract of foot-hills extending from Visalia on the Tulare river, to the head-waters of the Kern river (that is to say, the region where the Sierras and the Coast Range meet, enclosing the head of the great San Joaquin valley), is clothed with glorious forest, haunted by all manner of beasts,—deer and antelope, cinnamon and grizzly bears, wild-cat and fox, and California lion or puma; the latter a cowardly (or sensible?) beast, which knows discretion to be the better part of valour, and so takes refuge in trees, though it really is very powerful, and quite able to damage an assailant. Altogether, there is ample material for a very pretty mixed bag.

This tract of forest is said to extend for about 150 miles, having a general width of about 10 miles. It includes the finest belt yet known of the Sequoia gigantea, scattered over the ridges which divide the Kaweah and King’s rivers and their tributaries, the largest trees being generally found in the valleys where the soil is moist, and at a general elevation of from 6000 to 7000 feet above the sea-level.

The largest Sequoia that has yet been discovered is on King’s river, about forty miles from Visalia. It is forty-four feet in diameter— one hundred and thirty-two feet in circumference! Wouldn’t an English forester open his eyes pretty wide at such a giant as this! Happily for all lovers of the beautiful, the owners of saw-mills find that they cannot well “handle” these monarchs—they are not “convenient” either to saw down or to cut up; so, although the young ones are ruthlessly destroyed (I ought to say utilised for timber), the Big Trees are mercifully spared. Long may they live!

Some years ago the Californian Government enacted a law forbidding the cutting down of trees over sixteen feet in diameter; but as no penalty attaches to burning these, or to cutting all lesser ones, the law is practically worthless, and ruthless lumberers still set up their saw-mills on the edge of the Sequoia belt, and convert all they can into timber. Only a few months ago five saw-mills reckoned that, in the previous season, they had cut over two million feet of Big Tree “lumber.” If such devastation is allowed to go on unchecked, the extermination of the species will follow pretty close on its discovery, and soon the glory of the primeval forest will be little more than a memory.

Other Big Tree groves have been discovered on the Tule river in the same district, which seems to have been the favoured home of the Gigantea. Not only are the biggest trees found thereabouts, but also the tallest mountains. The very high region where the great San Joaquin, King’s, and Kern rivers all rise, includes some of the grandest scenery of the Sierras, the peaks and passes being considerably higher than those near the Yō-semité, while the stupendous precipices at the head of King’s river can scarcely be exceeded anywhere. Some of the passes are at an altitude of upwards of 12,000 feet, while the peaks range up to about 15,000. Mount Whitney is 14,887 feet.

The rise from the plain to these great mountain-passes is far more rapid than to those farther north. Here the average ascent is 240 feet in the mile, to a pass of 12,000, while there the average rise is 100 feet in the mile, to reach passes at 7000 feet.

It strikes me that some of our sporting kinsmen might make out an uncommonly pleasant season “down south” in the San Joaquin.

Murphy’s, August 4th.

Alas! my eyes have looked their last on the glorious forest; and now I am once more in the skeletonised districts abandoned by the miners. Early rising finds favour in these parts; and so, when I came down “at five o’clock in the morning,” a pleasant woman provided me with a bowl of delicious new milk, and then I started for one last enchanting wander in the forest sanctuary. I “marked well its bulwarks, and told the red towers thereof,” and let each lovely picture sink into my memory,—there to abide for ever as a vision of delight.

Many a time hereafter will those green glades and clustered pillars rise before me, as if to mock the dulness of ordinary landscape. The wonder to me is, why we are all content to spend most of our years in the most common-place surroundings, and only devote a few short hours to such scenes as these.

I left Calaveras with my companions of yesterday. Our coachman was addressed by every one as “Colonel”; and I found he had been some general’s A.D.C. in the civil war. Titles and offices do not necessarily imply much out here. The judge in the Yō-semité was about the hardest drinker there, and periodically had an all-round fight with his drinking pals,—and justice had to wait till he grew sufficiently sober to administer it. Luckily his services were not often required.

Indeed I am bound to say that not only have my own glimpses of Californian life shown it in the most peaceful light, but I have not even heard a rumour of any recent lawless proceedings hereabouts. I am even considerably impressed by the very respectable tone of such talk as has reached my ears. Of course I make all allowance for the extreme courtesy and respect which is here paid to the presence of a woman; but it could scarcely be supposed that the entrance of a chance stranger would invariably check that torrent of profanity which we are told generally flows so freely. I am chiefly impressed by the civility of men in speaking to one another, and am reminded of the old lady who remarked that “it was a great pity that swearing should be done away with, for it was a fine set-off to conversation!” Apparently it is a set-off which is happily on the wane in these parts.

There may be rough corners in Western life at the present day, but the free use of bowie-knives and revolvers is happily no longer de rigueur; and though a lot of cattle-driving Texans and Mexicans, finding a favourite drinking-bar crowded with miners, hunters, and ranch-men, may still, under the influence of “chain-lightning” whisky, get up a drunken row, in which six-shooters and knives figure largely, and in which killing is not accounted murder, the general feeling of the community is in favour of peace and order; and the maxim of “live and let live” is widely approved.

This improved state of society is undoubtedly due in a great measure to the working of the far-famed “Vigilance Committees,” who, when rowdyism had reached a point which made life altogether unendurable for peaceable, orderly folk, bound themselves together as members of a secret society, sworn never to divulge the names of the committee (who, if known, would have become doomed men).

This self-constituted inquisition carried out its own decrees with a simple straightforwardness of purpose that commanded the deepest respect from the wild dare-devils who gloried in setting all ordinary law at defiance. No time was wasted on useless formalities. A man who was known to have committed a murder, or, far worse, to have stolen horses or cattle, or otherwise transgressed grievously, was quietly arrested, marched before the secret tribunal, tried, condemned, and hanged during the night. There was no pleasant excitement to support the culprit’s spirits—no sympathetic friends to attempt a rescue,—all was done silently, with grim determination; and in the morning, a corpse, swinging from the low bough of some specially selected tree, alone announced that the ends of justice had been accomplished.

If a man was not considered bad enough for hanging, but his room was deemed better than his company, or if he was suspected of serious crime, he received a mysterious notice—

“Unless you leave this town in twenty-four hours, you are a dead man.         +

The notice was not signed, but a red cross in the corner was the recognised symbol of the dread committee; and the recipent well knew that it was no idle threat, and made tracks accordingly with the utmost speed. It was rough justice, but effectual, and well suited to that rude state of society. After a while the Vigilance Committees resigned their functions in favour of legitimate government, but not till they had done the rough work,—acting like sledge-hammers in preparing the way for more refined tools.1

[1The grim humour of early days still, however, crops up from time to time. There was a story told the other day of an old man who had killed many men—had usually, indeed, killed every man who greatly displeased him. His favourite weapon was the rifle, his inseparable companion.
At last a man came all the way from Texas, with the avowed object of killing this ruffian, and so avenging a relative who had been one of his many victims. One day, as the old man walked along a path through the woods, his pursuer fired at him from behind a tree. The aim was true, and the victim fell to the ground shot through the body. But he was not dead.
After some time, the man who had shot him put his head out from behind the tree, to learn what had been the effect of the bullet. At that moment a rifle-ball crashed through his brain.
A little later, a neighbour came along the path, and found the Texan quite dead; and the old man, though plainly fatally wounded, was still alive and conscious, but unable to do more than raise himself on one elbow. After he had succeeded in attaining this position, he said, “Could yer roll that cuss over hyur, so’s I kin hev a look at him?”
This was done, and he gazed at the lifeless body with a contemptuous kind of interest. “Bill Fosdick allus was a fool!” said he. “I knowed he couldn’t keep his head behind that tree! I knowed he’d look out arter a while, and then I knowed I’d fetch him!”
Then the neighbour took off his coat, and adjusted it under the old fellow’s head, and in a few minutes more, two dead bodies lay side by side in the woodland path.]

We look upon the summary justice of Lynch law as such a purely American institution, that it is rather singular to learn that the term originated in Ireland four hundred years ago, when, in the year 1498, James Lynch, Mayor of Galway, “hanged his own son out of the window (for defrauding and killing a stranger), without martial or common law, to show a good example to posterity.” It is a pity that so excellent an example did not become a recognised institution in Ireland as well as in America. By this time that unhappy land might have become peaceful and orderly!

It appears that young Lynch had found his way to Spain, where he received much kindness from a Spanish family. On his return to Ireland, he was accompanied by the son of the house, who was cordially welcomed by the mayor. But ere long both young men fell in love with the same fascinating maiden, and young Lynch, wild with jealousy, stabbed his friend. He was tried for murder by his own father, who, by virtue of his office as judge, had to pronounce sentence of death. Intercession was made for the young man, but the judge (prevailing over the father) ruled that such breach of hospitality was unpardonable. So the culprit was hanged from the window of the room where he had stabbed his friend, and the rusty bar which did service on the occasion is still pointed out to all interested in such matters.

It is only a fifteen-miles’ drive from Calaveras to this hideous place; so I have had ample time to look about, and examine the very curious condition of the rocks, as they appear after a severe course of placer-mining. They are as dismal as the desolate settlement of deserted shanties and tumble-down weather-board houses, varied with abandoned mill-dams, where streams, once bright and babbling, were captured, and forced to work, whether they would or no.

The coach starts from here at some unearthly hour of the morning to catch the train at Milton, and I must sleep while I can. So good night.

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