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An Overland Journey from New York to San Francisco in the Summer of 1859 by Horace Greeley (1860)

Next: California GeologyContentsPrevious: Yosemite

California—The Big Trees.

Steamboat Cornelia, on the
San Joaquin,
Aug. 15, ’59.

On reaching Clark’s ranche, we were so happy as to meet the Reverend O. C. Wheeler, secretary of the state agricultural society, and his associates on the visiting committee of that society, now on a tour of official observation through various districts of the state. We had agreed at Sacramento to make the trip to the Yosemite together; but some mishap had detained them fourteen miles back of Bear Valley during the night of Wednesday last; and when at length they reached Mariposas, my party had been some hours on our way, while not a horse nor mule could be hired that day, to replace their jaded nags, whose immediate proceeding on so rough a trip was out of the question. So they halted, perforce, till next morning, and were only going up to the Yosemite when we were coming down, as aforesaid.

But they had just returned to Clark’s from the Big Trees of Mariposas, having visited those of Calaveras two or three days before. The general impression seems to be that the Calaveras trees are the larger and finer; but Mr. Wheeler, having just visited each, was very decided in his preference for those of Mariposas, and I understood all his associates to concur in that verdict. They found the Calaveras trees in far better condition, in the charge of a keeper, and approached by a road over which a light carriage may readily be driven up to the very trees themselves. These are no light advantages; but they assured us that, on the other hand, the Mariposas trees are considerably more numerous (some six hundred against two hundred and fifty), and are really larger and finer specimens of their kind. Mr. Wheeler found by careful measurement of the diameter of one of these trees one hundred feet above the ground to be twenty feet, while its first limb, which put off at that height, had a diameter of six feet. Just think of a twig six feet through at that elevation! He obtained these results by measuring the tree’s shadow, which I need hardly remark was probably narrower than the tree itself. He had several tape-line measurements of Mariposas trees over one hundred feet in circumference; but one of the Calaveras trees is claimed to be, I think, nearly one-fourth larger than this. No matter—those of either county are big enough.

We went up to the Mariposas trees early next morning. The trail crosses a meadow of most luxuriant wild grass, then strikes eastward up the hills, and rises almost steadily, but in the main not steeply, for five miles, when it enters and ends in a slight depression or valley, nearly on the top of this particular mountain, where the Big Trees have been quietly nestled for I dare not say how many thousand years. That they were of very substantial size when David danced before the ark, when Solomon laid the foundations of the Temple, when Theseus ruled in Athens, when Aeneas fled from the burning wreck of vanquished Troy, when Sesostris led his victorious Egyptians into the heart of Asia, I have no manner of doubt.

The Big Trees, of course, do not stand alone. I apprehend that they could not stand at present, in view of the very moderate depth at which they are anchored to the earth. Had they stood on an unsheltered mountain-top, or even an exposed hill-side, they would doubtless have been prostrated, as I presume thousands like them were prostrated, by the hurricanes of centuries before Christ’s advent. But the locality of these, though probably two thousand five hundred feet above the South Merced, and some four thousand five hundred above the sea, is sheltered and tranquil, though several of these trees have manifestly fallen within the present century. Unquestionably, they are past their prime, though to none more than to them is applicable the complimentary characterization of "a green old age." Let me try to give as clear an idea of these forest mastodons as I can, though I know that will be but a poor one.

In measuring trees, it is so easy to exaggerate by running your line around the roots rather than the real body, that I place little dependence on the reported and recorded measurements of parties under no obligations to preserve a judicial impartiality. But I believe a fair measurement of the largest trees standing in this grove would make them not less than ninety feet in circumference, and over thirty in diameter, at a height of six feet from their respective bases, and that several of them have an altitude of more than three hundred feet. I believe the one that was last uprooted measures a little over three hundred.

But these relics of a more bounteous and magnificent world seem destined to speedy extinction. I deem them generally enfeebled by age and the racking and wrenching, of their roots by the blasts that sweep through their tops. These malign influences they might withstand for ages, however, were it not for the damage they have already sustained, and are in danger of hereafter sustaining, through the devastating agency of fire. For these glorious evergreen forests, though the ground beneath them is but thinly covered with inflammable matter, are yet subject to be overrun every second or third year by forest conflagrations. For the earth, to a depth of several feet, even, is dry as an ash-heap, from July to October, and the hills are so steep that fire ascends them with wonderful facility. And thus the big trees are scarred, and gouged, and hollowed out at the root and upward, as the effects of successive fires, one of which, originating far southward, ran through this locality so late as last autumn, burning one of the forest kings so that it has since fallen, half destroying another already prostrate, through the hollow of which two horsemen (not G. P. R. James’s, I trust,) were accustomed to ride abreast for a distance of fully one hundred feet, and doing serious damage to very many others. If the village of Mariposas, the county, or the state of California, does not immediately provide for the safety of these trees, I shall deeply deplore the infatuation, and believe that these giants might have been more happily located.

The big trees are usually accounted red-wood, but bear a strong resemblance to the cedar family, so that my intelligent guide plausibly insisted that they are identical in species with their probable co[n]temporaries, the famous cedars of Lebanon. The larger cedars in their vicinity bear a decided resemblance to the smallest of them; and yet there are quite obvious differences between them. The cedar’s limbs are by far the more numerous, and come far down the trunk; they are also relatively smaller. The cedar’s bark is the more deeply creased up and down the trunk, while the foliage of the big trees is nearer allied to that of certain pines than to the cedar’s. The bark of the big trees is very thick—in some instances, over two feet—and is of a dry, light quality, resembling cork: hence the fatal facility of damage by running fires. The wood of the big trees is of a light red color, seeming devoid alike of sap and resin, and to burn about as freely while the tree lives as a year or more after its death. Unless in the cedars of Lebanon, I suspect these mammoths of the vegetable world have no counterparts out of California.

They are of course not all of extraordinary size, yet I cannot remember one that would girth so little as twenty feet at a height of two yards from the earth’s surface, which is the proper point for horizontal measurement. Hardly one is entirely free from the marks of fire at its root, while several have been burned at least half through, and are so hollowed by fire that a tree eight feet in diameter would probably find ample room in the cavity. And, while many are still hale and thrifty, I did not perceive a single young one coming forward to take the place of the decaying patriarchs. I believe these trees now bear* [* I am assured that this was a mistake, and that young trees of this species, propagated from seed-cones, are now growing in several nurseries. I am sure I saw no cones on any of the giants, though they were in season; and I still suspect that the seeds from which young trees have been started, grew on the younger and smaller trees of the species, not on the mammoths.] no seed-cone or nut, whatever they may have done in Scipio’s or in Alexander’s time, and there is no known means of propagating their kind; and I deeply regret that there is not, though starting a tree that would come to its maturity in not less than four thousand years would seem rather slow business to the fast age in which it is our fortune to live. Possibly, the big trees are a relic of some bygone world—some past geologic period—cotemporaries of the gigantic, luxuriant ferns whereof our mineral coal is the residuum. I am sure they will be more prized and treasured a thousand years hence than now, should they, by extreme care and caution, be preserved so long, and that thousands will then visit them, over smooth and spacious roads, for every one who now toils over the rugged bridle-path by which I reached them. Meantime, it is a comfort to know that the Vandals who bored down with pump-augers, the largest of the Calaveras trees, in order to make their fortunes by exhibiting a section of its bark at the east, have been heavy losers by their villainous speculation.

We left the big trees a little after ten a. m., returned to Clark’s and fed, and then struck for Mariposas, where we arrived a little before six p. m.—I alone so covered with boils, caused immediately by horseback exercise, as to make riding in any way a torture. My friend who had taken me up to Hussey’s in his carriage was promptly on hand on my return, though he had been a hundred times assured that I could not possibly be back at the time appointed. We had a gathering and a talk at Mariposas in the evening, and I then rode over to Bear Valley, which we reached a little before midnight. Next evening, we ran down so far as the Tuolumne on our return, and to-day came on to Stockton, where we took the steamboat for San Francisco, which we hope to reach a little after midnight.


I have already stated that I spent most of Wednesday in an examination, under Col. Fremont’s guidance, of the mines he is working in Bear Valley, and of the mills in which he reduces the rock and separates the gold. I usually observe carefully the rule which enjoins reserve, when addressing the public, respecting matters of purely personal and private concern; but there are circumstances in the case of Col. F. which seem to justify a departure from the general usage. Chosen three or four years since the standard-bearer of a new political organization in an exciting contest, and exposed, because of that choice, to a torrent of personal defamation which not merely impeached his integrity as a man and his fidelity as a public servant, but sought to divest him at once of his name, his religious faith, and even of his native land, I believe there are many thousands who cherish for Col. Fremont a personal regard and affection which render them profoundly solicitous with respect to his good or evil fortune. It is for this class only that I write the following:

The public are generally aware that Colonel Fremont purchased from a Mexican at an early day a large tract or grant of wild mountain land lying among the foothills of the Sierra Nevada, called by the Mexicans, Los Mariposas (the Butterfly), after a wild flower known to abound here. It is known also that this tract was, some years after, discovered or presumed to be rich in gold—the first piece of rich vein—stone having been taken out by the proprietor’s own hand. It is further known that all manner of difficulties and obstructions were interposed to defeat the confirmation of the grant under which Colonel Fremont holds his title, and that a protracted and most expensive litigation was thus forced upon him. Meantime, the property was wholly unproductive—that is to its owner—and the most inviting portions of it were clutched by squatters, who claimed, as they still claim, a right to dig its soil into utterly worthless chasms and heaps in quest of gold, to cut down its timber and feed off its grass at their own discretion, leaving to the fortunate owner only the privilege of paying the taxes, which, under the management of public affairs by officers politically and personally hostile to him, have been swelled to no less than sixteen thousand dollars per annum—his taxes, remember, on an estate which every body used or wasted as they saw fit, and which was yielding him no income whatever. For the feeble efforts at quartz-mining made in his be half in his years of absence—in the absence, too, of all successful experience in such mining—only served to involve him still more deeply in debt, which was further swelled by unfortunate agencies and business connections, until the aggregate of his liabilities on account of this property can hardly have fallen short of half a million dollars.

Such were the circumstances, under which he determined, in 1857, to return to his California estate, and here, surrounded by his family, devote all his time and energies to its improvement and renovation. In the spirit of that determination he has since lived and labored, rising with the lark, and striving to obtain a complete knowledge and master of the entire business, taking more and more labor and responsibility on his own shoulders as he felt himself able to bear them, until he is now manager, chief engineer, cashier, accountant, and at the head of every other department but that of law, for which he finds it necessary still to rely on professional aid. And his mines are at length becoming productive and profitable. His first (steam) mill, near his dwelling, runs eight stamps night and day; his second (water) mill, three miles distant, on the Merced, at the north end of his estate, runs twelve stamps, also constantly; and the two are producing gold at the rate of at least two hundred and fifty thousand dollars per annum, at an absolute cost, I am confident, of not more than one hundred and fifty thousand dollars. Of course he needs all the profits, if not more, to extend and perfect his works, having already a much larger water-mill nearly ready to go into operation beside that on the Merced, in which he expects, I believe, to run fifty-six stamps, and he hopes to have one hundred in all running before the close of 1860. With that number, I presume, he would be able, by giving his constant personal attention to the business, aided by faithful and capable assistants, to realize a net profit of at least ten thousand dollars per week, which would very soon clear him of debt and leave him unincumbered in the ownership of perhaps the finest mining property in the world.

Still, the Spanish proverb, "It takes a mine to work a mine" is exemplified in his case, as in others. A large additional investment is needed to render his property as productive as it might be. For instance: he has just contracted for the transportation of thirty thousand tons of vein-stone from his great mine to his mill on the Merced (barely a mile and a half down hill) for sixty thousand dollars. One half of this sum would construct a railroad from the heart of the mine down to the floor of the mill, and take down this amount of rock, leaving the railroad and thirty thousand clear gain. But he must have the rock at once, while the railroad would require time, and a heavy outlay of ready cash. A Rothschild would build the road forthwith, and save forty thousand dollars; but Colonel F., not being yet a Rothschild, whatever he may in time become, must bide his time.

His great vein, though not the richest, is probably the most capacious of any in California. Its thickness varies from eight to thirty-eight feet—I believe it is in one place sixty feet wide. It is, in fact, a cliff or pyramid of gold-bearing quartz inclosed in a mountain of slate—a mountain deeply gashed and seamed in various directions by the water-courses which run down it to the Merced. These ravines, this river, aided by proper engineering, obviate all the usually heavy, often ruinous, expense of pumping; the mine, properly opened, will not only clear itself of water, but the vein-stone may be easily run out on inclined tram-roads, instead of being hoisted to the surface through shafts by an enormous outlay of power. Then the width of the vein obviates all necessity for dead-work, save in sinking shafts and running up adits; the principal work is rather quarrying than mining; and there can be no apprehension that the vein will give out or grow poor, because it has already been tested at its various outcrops to a depth of fifteen hundred feet, and is richer at the bottom than near the top, where it has mainly been worked to this time. I have no doubt that there are ten millions of dollars in this mine above water-level—that is, the level of the Merced—and that, though the yield of gold thus far has fallen rather below twenty dollars per ton, it may, even at that rate, be mined at a net profit of at least one-fourth of the gross product. Colonel F. is confident that his present works do not separate half the gold contained in the rock, and that, by the use of the new amalgamators he is about to apply, he will double his weekly product without any increase of cost. This conviction is founded on chemical experiments and tests, which seem to leave no doubt of the fact that the additional gold is in the rock; but whether the means of extracting it have yet been discovered, remains to be seen. At all events, I feel sure that the productiveness of these works will increase much faster than their expenses, so long as Colonel Fremont shall devote himself to their management so entirely as he is now doing. In the hands of agents and attorneys, they would probably become again what they once were, and what all quartz-mining works, managed at second hand, have been.

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