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A Vacation among the Sierras (1962),
by Thomas Starr King

Letter Four

SAN FRANCISCO, November, 1860.


Dear Transcript: We were very tired when we dismounted at Clarke’s log hut and canvas dining tent in the glorious forest, thirty miles from Mariposa. Tired in body and in brain,—tired by our seven hours of horseback riding, and by the perpetual feast of floral beauty and sugar-pine magnificence which had delighted eye and heart. But it did not require a long time to restore us. Half an hour’s rest under one of the stately firs that tower above the cabin, and a cup of tea with our noon meal, fit for a mandarin, (almost as delicious, friend Transcript, as our excellent hostess in West Cambridge has often prepared for us) put us in good working trim for the afternoon’s excursion. We were only five miles from the Mammoth Trees. An easy upland ride of an hour would lead us to the grove where the vegetable Titans, we had so often read about with a wonder tinged with unbelief, held their solemn court.

And I confess that I began to doubt, as the time for mounting again approached, as to the existence of the marvels. Was it possible that, before sunset, I was to stand by a living tree more than ninety feet in circuit, and over three hundred feet high? Think what these figures mean, my hasty reader, when transformed into solid bark and fibre. Take a ball of cord, measure off a hundred feet from it, cut it and tie the ends, and then by the aid of four or five companions, stretch it into a circle, (if you have a parlor spacious enough to permit the experiment), and imagine that space filled with the column of a vigorous cedar. Now conceive this tree rooted on the Common near the Park street entrance. What do you say to the idea of looking up its smooth trunk to a point higher than the topmost leaf of any elm on the Tremont street mall, and of seeing there a bough thicker than the largest of those elms shooting out from it? What do you say to the fact that its plume would nod a hundred feet above the vane of Park street spire? What do you say to the possibility, if it lay hollowed on the ground, of driving a barouche and four through it, without their being able to touch the highest point of its curved ceiling “with a ten foot pole?” Then think of it cut up into six thousand cords of wood. I forget how much space the iron fence encloses around the great Elm on the Common. If it is not so much as thirty-four feet in diameter the fence would not encircle the tree we are speaking of. At any rate, if such a Colossus should spring near the frog pond, the old elm would look, by the side of it, like General Tom Thumb at the knee of Hercules. When I recalled the wonder and delight I had felt in seeing a hemlock six feet in diameter near the Dixville Notch in New Hampshire, and thought what a tree must look like that is more than five times such bulk, I confess that, although I was strangely excited at the possibility, I was prepared to find that all visitors had greatly exaggerated, and that as to such structures and the marvel of them, we must “walk by faith, not by sight.”

At any rate, we will enjoy the ride in search of the grove. The flowers are plenteous along all the steadily rising trail. Here and there we must pause before one of the seductive sugar pines, which looks so full of melody that it seems as if the first breeze that brushes it would make it break forth into a Mozartish song. Then we must begin to train our eyes to the general scale of the structures in the forest. There lies now part of a tree trunk on a slope near our track. How long is it? I measured it two or three times with my eye, and said, “seventy-five to eighty feet.” Another of the party said, “a hundred.” A third, who was a better mathematician than the others, insisted that it would reach a hundred and twenty-five feet. I laughed at him, and then the banker dismounted from his mule, and paced the side of the trunk. It was a hundred and fifty feet long. We had not learned to allow for the fact that the ordinary trees we were riding under were two hundred feet tall. What if we should meet a grizzly on a flowery bank under one of the graceful sugar pines? While we were discussing this possibility, we came upon fresh traces of a very large one. I was eager to get a glimpse of him, but the majority of the company prayed that they might not see one of the shaggy monsters, and their prayer was answered.

There are two large groves of the mammoth trees in California. The one which is usually visited is in Calaveras County. It contains hardly a third as many trees as the Mariposa cluster which we are in search of in this letter, but is much more easy of access. 90 It covers about as much space as the Common, and a good carriage road leads to the heart of it. At the portal of the grove stand a pair of sentinels, twenty-five feet apart, which are sixty feet in circumference and three hundred feet high. They are well named the “Two Guardsmen.” What a pity, for Dumas’s sake, that there is not one more! Passing these warders, you drive up to a hotel, and find the grounds trimmed up and the trees named and labelled for guests. Some of the labels are of gilt letters on marble, we are told, and are tastefully inlaid in the bark from six to twenty feet above the ground. The “Hercules” in this group is ninety-three feet in circumference. The

Galen Clark at the Base of the Grizzly Giant, Mariposa Grove

Bancroft Library Photograph


This photograph probably was taken within a year or two of the
time when the King party took leave of the hospitable host of
Clark’s Ranch with a hearty “God bless you!”

The Upper Hotel in Yosemite Valley. June 22, 1859

Bancroft Library Photograph

JUNE 22, 1859

A year after this picture was taken Starr King and his companions
enjoyed a dinner of oysters and lobster here and noted that the only
ornamentation provided by landlord Charles Peck was a lithograph of the
great prize fighters of the world.

“California” seventy-three feet in circuit, shoots up straight as an arrow three hundred and ten feet. “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” is a tree which has been burnt out; it is eighty-three feet in circumference and will lodge twenty persons. The “Mother of the Forest” is three hundred and twenty-seven high and nearly eighty feet in girth.

The bark of this empress of the grove, to the height of one hundred and sixteen feet, is now in the English Crystal Palace at Sydenham. 91 One of our party saw it there some two years since, and heard an indignant Englishman exclaiming to the exhibitor that it was never taken from a single tree; that no tree ever could have grown so large. Our companion mildly interfered in the dispute, and assured the Englishman that he had stood in the grove a year before; that there were larger trees in it than this one thus flayed; and that, in spite of the fact that the bark had been completely removed to the height of over a hundred feet, the tree was as green as any of the majestic fraternity. The Englishman gave one look of rage at our honest-eyed friend, and bolted from the neighborhood. Our friend told the simple truth, for the tree flourished two years after the spoliation, which, we rejoice to say, is longer than the villainous speculation did. One of these Calaveras trees, three hundred feet high, was cut down a few years ago, eight feet from the ground. 92 Part of the trunk is used as a bowling-alley, and the stump, twenty-five feet in diameter, covered with a canopy of green boughs, is now a dancing saloon. To cut it down, pump augers were used from either side, until the tree was completely severed from the base. But so nicely poised was it, that it would not fall. Only by driving in large wedges with immense battering rams could its equilibrium be disturbed sufficiently to make it top-heavy. Five men were at work twenty-five days in this wretched drudgery of destruction.

The Mariposa grove stands as the Creator has fashioned it, unprofaned except by fire, which, long before the advent of Saxon white men, had charred the base of the larger portion of the stalwart trees. We rode on for an hour, climbing all the time, till we reached a forest plateau five thousand feet above the sea. This, in New England, is the height of Mt. Madison, where not a shrub can grow. Riding on a few rods, through ordinary evergreens with dark stems, we at last catch a glimpse of a strange color in the forest. It is a tree in the distance of a light cinnamon hue. We ride nearer and nearer, seeing others of the same complexion starting out in most impressive contrast with the sombre columns of the wilderness. We are now in the grove of the Titans. The bark has a right leonine effect on the eye. We single out one of them for a first acquaintance, and soon dismount at its root.

I must confess that my own feeling, as I first scanned it, and let the eye roam up its tawny pillar, was of intense disappointment. But then I said to myself, this is doubtless one of the striplings of the Anak brood—only a small affair of some forty feet in girth. I took out the measuring line, fastened it to the trunk with a knife, and walked around, unwinding as I went. The line was seventy-five feet long. I came to the end of the line before completing the circuit. Nine feet more were needed. I had dismounted before a structure eighty-four feet in circumference and nearly three hundred feet high, and I should not have guessed that it would measure more than fifteen feet through. It did not look to me twice as large as the Big Elm on the Common, although that is only eighteen feet in circumference, and this was twenty-eight feet in diameter. During the day I had seen a dozen sugar pines which appeared to be far more lofty.

The next one we measured was eighty-nine feet and two inches in girth; the third was ninety feet. There are nearly three times as many of the giant species in this grove as in the Calaveras cluster. Divided into two groups, there are six hundred and fifty of them within a space of one mile by three-quarters. Col. [James Lloyd La Fayette] Warren, the faithful and self-sacrificing friend of agricultural interests in the State, proprietor and editor of the California Farmer, measured the principal trees of one group on this ridge, some three years ago, and found one of 102 feet, two of 100 feet, one of 97, one of 92, one of 82, one of 80, two of 77, three of 76, and thus gradually diminishing, till more than a hundred trees were on his list that measured fifty feet and upward in circumference. 93

This crowd of majestic forms explains the disappointment in first entering the grove. The general scale is too immense. Half a dozen of the largest trees spaced half a mile apart, and properly set off by trees of six and eight feet in girth would shake the most volatile mind with awe. Four days afterwards, on the homeward path by another trail, I struck off the track with one of our party to see some “big trees” that were reported to us as a mile from the path, near “Crane’s Flat.” We found them. 94 The first one we approached was the only one of the species in the range of vision, and reared its snuff-colored column among some ordinary firs. How majestic it swelled and towered! My companion and I both exclaimed, this is the largest tree we have yet seen; this will measure more than a hundred feet. We gazed a long time at its soaring stem, from which, a hundred feet above us, the branches that shot out bent suddenly upwards, like pictures of the golden candlesticks in the Hebrew temple. It seemed profane to put a measuring tape upon such a piece of organized sublimity. But we wanted to know how much more than a hundred feet could be claimed for it, and I made the trial. It was just fifty-six feet in circuit,—but little more than half the size of the monarchs in Mariposa which it seemed to excel so much in majesty. There were a hundred trees in the Mariposa grove larger than this, and all of them together did not make half the impression on me that this one stamped into the brain at the first sight. We need to see the “Mother of the Forest” towering near Trinity Church in New York, and over-topping its spire with a column whose life is older than the doctrine of the Trinity, to appreciate its vastness.

We ought to see the “Fountain Tree” of the Mariposa grove, a hundred and two feet in circuit, rising near the Bunker Hill monument, and bearing up a crown eighty feet above it, to feel the marvel of its bulk and vitality. Think of that monument as a living structure. Conceive it as having grown from a granite seed, whose outpouring life absorbed from the earth and attracted from the winds fine granite dust, to be slowly compacted, by internal and unerring masonry, into the solid squares of its strength and its tapering symmetry! A work far more marvellous than this has been wrought by each fragment of a cone that took root five thousand feet on a ridge of the Sierras, centuries ago, and now is represented by an organism of thirty feet diameter. Indeed, it is quite probable that there have been a few trees in both the Mariposa and Calaveras groves, which have built their sublime columns out of the air through the energy of a single seed, in whose trunk Bunker Hill monument could have been inserted and hidden, while the stem would still spring more than two hundred feet above its apex-stone. For the ruins of one now lie in the Mariposa grove which was forty feet in diameter, and must have towered more than four hundred feet high.

Many of the Transcript readers know already that a petrified cedar has been discovered near Honey Lake, over the eastern slope of the Sierras, which measures forty-two feet in diameter at the butt, and is over six hundred and sixty feet long. 95 I have conversed with one of the prospecting party who discovered it, an intelligent and reliable man. He showed me specimens of the petrifaction from different parts of the tree. The bark is nearly snow white, and I took in my hands a piece from a heavy and gummy knot which was knocked off five hundred and twenty feet on the stem. By pacing, the trunk measured over six hundred and sixty feet, as it lay on the sloping and barren ground. At that point it was four feet in diameter, the residue, probably forty feet, being hidden by sand. Think now of a tree seven hundred feet high! Reared by one seed out of air and cloud, and then turned to solid stone! Here are three Bunker Hill monuments already built of enchanted rock. Is the Greek fable of Proteus, who changed from shape to shape to escape his pursuers, a mere fantasy? And the conception of the Medusa’s head,—how does it read by the side of that solid tree upon which the Gorgon face of nature has been turned?

The afternoon hours we passed in the Mariposa grove were strangely short. One needs a long summer day for the proper study even of half a dozen of the chief senators in the group. What is an afternoon among six hundred? I lay for half an hour alone at the root of the most colossal bole—my companions out of sight and hearing—and watched the golden sunshine mounting the amber trunk, and at last leaving a hundred feet of it in shadow to flood its mighty boughs and locks with tender lustre. What silence and what mystery! How many centuries of summers has such evening splendor burnished thus the summit of the completed shaft? How long since the quickening sunbeam fell upon the first spear of green in which the prophecy of the superb obelisk was enfolded? Why cannot the dumb column now be confidential? There comes a breath of wind, cooled by the snow on higher swells of the Sierras, which can be seen from the western edge of the grove;—why will not the old patriarch take advantage of that ripple through his leaves and whisper to me his age? Are you as old as Noah? Do you span the centuries as far as Moses? Can you remember the time of Solomon? Were you planted before the seed of Rome took root in Italy? At any rate, tell me whether or not your birth belongs to the Christian centuries; whether we must write “B. C” or “A. D.” against your infancy. I promised the stalwart greybeard that I would tell nobody, or at most only the Transcript, if he would just drop into my ear the hour of his nativity. Perhaps he would have told me, if my party had not returned to disturb the conditions of a communication. Possibly he would have said that his memory was treacherous, and that I must ask the scientific men.

I have asked them, and they differ. One calculation led Mr. Greeley to believe that the oldest of these trees were of substantial size when David danced before the Ark, when Theseus ruled in Athens, when AEneas fled from the burning wreck of Troy. In an English journal they were estimated by a distinguished botanist at three thousand years. Dr. [Jacob] Bigelow, by counting the rings in a section of the trunk of one of the largest, which had been felled, and computing from that, reduced these pretentions materially. He made it about 1900 years old,—a tender contemporary of Cicero and Julius Caesar. But since then, a merciless savant, Dr. [John] Torrey the botanist, declares that he has counted every ring on the tree that was cut down, and his figures have felled a vast pile of our poetry. Why must there be scientific men, who delight in bothering theologians, and in erecting their chevaux de frise in the path of all galloping romance? He makes our tree about eleven hundred years old. If this calculation be trustworthy, the column at whose root I sat took its first draught of sunshine in the time of Charlemagne. It is three hundred years older than the Norman Conquest and the great Hildebrand. 96 It was a giant in the time of the first Crusade. And it antedates the foundation stone of the oldest Gothic spire of Europe. A genial evening of life to the Methuselahs of the wilderness, who were babies of a century a thousand years ago.


Next: Letter 5ContentsPrevious: Letter 3

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