A Unique Redwood Tree Exhibit

The word unique is surely one of the most misused of words. We find events or objects in our daily environment that we are told are 'almost unique,' or 'believed to be unique.' It is truly rare when something can actually be declared unequivocally unique. In the case of this stunning Coast Redwood exhibit section now offered for purchase it is possible to employ that appellation in its most proper sense. Looking at the attached pictures, it can be seen that this is an historical and biological object of considerable significance for the interpretation of both American cultural history and natural history: it would make a superb addition to any number of institutions which emphasize these disciplines.

This walk-in reconstruction of a cut Coast Redwood tree from the forests of the northwest Pacific coast of California is the only known exhibit of this nature outside of its native area, it is, in a word, unique Found only in a narrow strip at and inland of the ocean in Northern California and southern Oregon, the Coast Redwood is one of three species of related trees that are commonly referred to as redwoods. The common name Coast Redwood is reserved for Sequoia sempervirens by both botanists and the National Park Service (NPS), which protects many of these individuals in Redwood National Park, in order to differentiate it from members of the species Sequoiadendron giganteum, the Giant Sequoia. That common name is also formalized by the botanical community and the NPS and is as well known by the public as is its relative the Coast Redwood. Protected in several national and state parks (and newly established areas in National Forest lands) in the Sierra Nevada mountain range of California - its only endemic area - the Giant Sequoia is the largest living thing on Earth. Like its biological relative the Coast Redwood, the Giant Sequoia had a circumglobal range in past geological times and is well known from the fossil record For reasons that have never been fully understood, ecological changes planet-wide have restricted both species to relictual areas in either the Sierra Nevada or Pacific Coast for these two species. The third redwood tree is equally restricted to a tiny area, in this case in China. The Dawn Redwood, Metasequoia glyptostroboides, is unusual among conifers - cone-bearing trees -in that it is deciduous. Discovered by Western science only in the 1940s, the Dawn Redwood had been venerated by the Chinese in temple grounds, but few individuals survived the depredations of a fuel-hungry people where not guarded. All three of the redwood species, though each in its monospecific genus (only one species in the genus) are classified in a single botanical family, the Cupressaceae. Much debate on this classification has gone on in recent years as the redwoods had long been in a taxon known as the Bald Cypress family (Taxodiaceae), but current botanical opinion has moved them out of this position. An international conference to be held in 2003 in Germany will consider this and many other aspects of all three redwoods. All three species are widely planted worldwide today horticulturally.

The Coast Redwood was first seen by members of the Spanish Portola Expedition and described by their priest Fray Juan Crespi on October 10, 1769 in the area of Monterey, California. The tree had been well known, of course, by Native Americans in prehistoric times. Very near the southern end of its then endemic range, the great trees in the Monterey grove of the Coast Redwood were described by Father Crespi as "very high trees of a red color, not known to us." There is a tantalizing suggestion that peoples from beyond North America, other than the Indians and the newly arrived Spaniards, had seen the tree much earlier. The Chinese junk of mariner Hee Li, misguided by a stuck compass needle, arrived in the Monterey area in 217 B.C. and Li surely would have seen the redwoods. While Li was very real, his landing on the central California coast remains unproven. Chinese artifacts are known from the area, however.

Regrettably, this 'titan race' of Coast Redwoods could not remain untouched by an expanding nation as the new North Americans in their hoards moved westward. The discovery of the high quality of the wood fiber in the Coast Redwood sealed its future as a species to be harvested on a truly gargantuan scale. Its cousin, the Giant Sequoia, though much larger in total bulk (but not nearly as tall on an individual basis) offered surprisingly poor wood for any large structural purposes -but, sadly, magnificent wood for shingles, shakes, fence posts and other ignominious uses for such a noble tree. The long fibers in the coast species made it ideal for many purposes; both species offered extremely rot-resistant properties due, in part, to their high tannic acid content. This 'tannin' is what gives both species, and the Dawn Redwood as well, their attractive reddish hue. So concentrated in bark and heartwood (though not in the fungal rot- susceptible sapwood) is tannic acid, that most fungi and insect pests are unable to damage the trees. Both North American species heal easily from damage due to invasive organisms or from fire. These properties were central to the desire of the lumber industry to bring to an end an utterly vast number of individual giants prior to the partial protection granted to both species; though this was not seen until well into the 20th century.

Proving to a suspicious public in the East that trees of the sizes claimed by the early California settlers was no easy task. And it is with that several decades-long effort that the exhibition section offered now for sale plays an historic role. The first exhibitions to be created using redwood materials were not from the Coast species, but from the Giant Sequoia. The first of these was the famed Mother of the Forest which grew in the Calaveras Grove of Big Trees in the Sierra Nevada. The speculator George Trask hired a crew of men in 1854, just three years alter the effective discovery of the Giant Sequoia was made by hunter A. T. Dowd, to build a scaffolding up the side of the tree and strip its bark - no one had yet successfully prepared a section containing the wood, as well. The bark strips were sent to London and New York for display. The tree, of course, died shortly thereafter. No tree species can survive with such severe damage to its primary generative layer (the vascular cambium beneath the bark) all the way around its circumference. The Giant Sequoia is remarkable -not unique - in its ability to heal itself if at least a small modicum of bark and cambium remains intact up a portion of the tree. The snag (a standing dead tree) of the Mother'stood in the grove until nearly totally destroyed by fire in 1908. A series of other famous exhibition trees were cut and reassembled a great distance from their origins over the latter part of the 19~ century, but again, most of these were Giant Sequoias. Many of these stories have been told in capsule form in a variety of books over the years, but only a few have been detailed in any great degree. The Mother of the Forest story has been well researched only recently and an unpublished manuscript exists concerning it. It is listed below in the select bibliography which considers several of these exhibit trees.

By the 1890s that appears to have changed. Perhaps the most famous of the exhibit sequoias was one known as the General Noble, so named for the Civil War general John Willock Noble. Noble later became Secretary of the Interior and his name was applied to an unusually large sequoia just prior to its demise at the hands of a special crew hired to prepare the exhibit section. Today, visitors to an area in Sequoia National Forest just to the north of Grant Grove (above) may view the remains of the Noble, now popularly termed the 'Chicago Stump," as this massive section was cut for the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition held in Chicago in that year. Often referred to as the 'First Chicago World's Fair' it celebrated the 400th year since the discovery of America by Christopher Columbus (albeit one year late). The section stood in the rotunda of the U. S. Government Building, arguably the most prestigious location, and possibly the cut sequoia was the most viewed exhibit, at the Fair. It was later shipped to Washington, D.C., where it stood on the Mall near the now-demolished Agriculture Department building for three decades.  It was dismantled eventually and stored in that Department's yards in Arlington, Virginia where today the Pentagon stands. What happened to the remains of the section when that five-sided building was constructed is an enduring mystery, but is has been suggested that it was ploughed into the foundation area and will surely amaze some future archeologist upon its rediscovery!

Another early example was a tree that was cut just a few hundred feet from the famous General Grant sequoia in Grant Grove, Kings Canyon National Park (which is operated effectively as a single park with Sequoia National Park in the southern Sierra) east of Fresno, California. This ~~Centennial Tree" was cut for the 1876 centenary of the United States and was exhibited in Philadelphia. It was roundly derided as a "California Hoax," but, of course, was the remains of yet another sacrificed titan. The fact that its reconstruction for exhibit was so poorly done is the likely reason it could not be accepted by a curious public as having come from a single tree. Even though the end of the Civil War had brought many disillusioned soldiers west in the later 1860s and would see these selfsame veterans name many individual Giant Sequoias for their favorites generals, presidents and others, those men represented too small a segment of the American populace to convince their fellows of the reality of trees of such giant proportions.

What is important about the ‘Chicago' specimen for our present interest is the style of the exhibit made: it is almost exactly the same as that of the Coast Redwood exhibit here offered for sale: a 'room tree.' The story of the Noble's cutting and showing has been thoroughly studied and a published history is available (see bibliography). The pictures of the cutting operation of this Giant Sequoia help, too, to some degree, to understand better how the work must have been done to prepare the section now on sale here. Some contusion came to light immediately when more investigation on the 'Niagara tree' (so called for present purposes; see below) was undertaken in recent months as both the Noble (Giant Sequoia) and the Niagara (Coast Redwood) were cut in the same year of 1893. While a photograph (see attached) of the Niagara would seem clearly to indicate that the tree was different from the Noble, a wood scientist has recently studied the Niagara to prove that it is, in fact a Coast Redwood. This has been assured and is one more piece of evidence that the 'room tree' offered here for purchase is a Coast Redwood. This is significant, as no other such exhibit is known to exist anywhere outside Northern California, thus adding to the exhibit value of the Niagara tree.

The Niagara tree was cut, as confirmed by a photograph of the period, on February 14, 1893 along the Eel River in Humboldt County, California and was felled in the manner typical for Coast Redwoods. Unlike Giant Sequoias, which are unusually wide near and a bit above the ground (the so-called 'butt swell') that adds so much extra labor to cutting these trees at that level, Coast Redwoods show little extra breadth at this point. The actual cutting probably employed double-headed axes and very long, large-toothed two- man 'whip' saws then also commonly in use in the Sierra Nevada logging shows. The Giant Sequoias were cut above the butt swell (sometimes up to ten feet or more above the ground) by cutting small holes deep into bark and sapwood and placing lengths of lumber known as 'spring boards' which would hold a circumferential walkway on which the lumberjacks could wield first their axes and then complete the cut with the hard to manage "misery whips." The Coast trees required no such special work and another attached photo shows the cutting crew at the base of the Niagara tree after its felling. The tree and the room section are over 70 feet in circumference. While the largest Giant Sequoia exceeds 100 feet in circumference, the 70 plus feet of the Niagara tree indicate a very large Coast Redwood. This but adds to the attractiveness of this exhibition piece.

The section is cut into 14 staves with both bark and wood present with each stave being approximately 3, 4 or 5 feet in width. The height is____. There is a doorway (see accompanying photos) in one side. The purchaser might choose to use the section as a stand-alone exhibit or to open the 'back'side (that away from its doorway) and place the whole at an entry to some broader exhibit of trees, forestry, logging history, natural history, American history or other.

The epithet used here of 'Niagara tree' bespeaks a portion of its history, as unlike the Noble, the Centennial and so many others, this tree was not formally named in its early period. A detailed history of this exhibition section has yet to be written. (The author of this prospectus is available for a contract study of it, however, should the purchaser of this section desire such a study. It is known, however, that it was shown at the Pan American World's Fair in Buffalo, New York in 1901 and subsequently became the property of the Niagara Falls Museum (NFM), a curiousity type museum near that famous water course. A picture taken on the cutting day of the tree was published in an early guidebook to the NFM with the erroneous statement that it was "nearly twice the size of the one exhibited at the Chicago Fair." Its actual smaller size does not detract at all from its very high value as an exhibit for a museum today, however, because the Niagara Room Tree remains in all senses unique.

Text by Donald J. McGraw MS, PhD (Associate Provost at the University of San Diego and specialist in the natural and human history of Giant Sequoias.)


Select Bibliography:

Hewes, Jeremy. Redwoods: The World's Largest Trees (New York: GalleryBooks,  1981). One of the best general works, this book covers all three species of redwoods with regard to both human and natural history.

Kruska, Dennis. Sierra Nevada Big Trees: History of the Exhibitions 1850-1903. (Dawsons Bookshop, 1985).

McGraw, Donald J. "The Tree that Crossed a Continent." California History ppg. 120- 139; illus. Summer, 1982.

McGraw, Donald J. "American Scientist 2000.

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