Big discovery led to preservation of Giant Sequoia grove in 1850s

Sweat dripping from his brow, Augustus T. Dowd paused for a moment to catch his breath. It was the spring of 1852, and he had been hired by the Union Water Company to supply fresh meat for the laborers constructing the first flume from the Stanislaus River to Murphys. He had shot a grizzly bear earlier in the day, and was now following the tracks that the wounded animal had left through the foliage. As he neared the top of the river canyon, he felt that his prey was close at hand.

As the land flattened out, Dowd kept his eyes to the ground. Broken branches and drops of blood confirmed that he was going in the right direction. Suddenly, something caught his eye. It wasn’t a full-grown grizzly bear—it was something even more awe-inspiring. He stood in the shadow of the largest tree that he had ever seen; maybe the largest in the world. Over 20-feet wide and impossibly tall, the towering giant took his breath away. He had to reach out and put his hand to the tree’s soft red bark, just to make sure that he wasn’t hallucinating.

Completely forgetting about the bear, Dowd returned to camp as quickly as he could. He told the workers of the massive tree and urged them to follow him back to it. To his dismay, none of the men believed him.

During the early days of the Gold Rush, the playing of practical jokes was a favorite pastime. In a land with rivers of gold, anything seemed possible. It was easy to convince men of tall tales in this strange territory, where no one could be sure what was around the next corner. The workers of the camp, perhaps having been fooled once before, only laughed at Dowd’s story.

Dowd understood the laborers’ skepticism; he had hardly believed his own eyes. Putting an end to his talk of giant trees, he hatched a plan to get his companions to see his discovery for themselves.

The following Sunday, Dowd left in the morning on his regular hunting expedition. Shortly afterward, he ran back to camp in a fit of excitement. He claimed that he had shot the biggest grizzly bear that he had ever seen and needed the help of the whole crew to bring the beast back. This time, the workers believed him and eagerly followed him up the canyon.

After a lengthy trek, Dowd came to rest at the foot of the giant Sequoia. “Do you now believe my big-trees story, boys?” he gleefully asked. “That is my grizzly bear.”

The news of Dowd’s discovery traveled quickly through the mining towns. Local newspapers picked up the story, and it was soon spread around the state, around the country and around the world. While some marveled at the new discovery in California, others greeted the news with skepticism. After all, many had heard tall tales from out west before and doubted the words of mountain men who had probably spent too much time out in the wilderness.

As most of the men in California had come to get rich one way or another, it wasn’t long before someone tried to make a profit from the giant redwoods.

William J. Hanford, the president of the Union Water Company, decided to strip the bark from Dowd’s tree and send it on a tour of the country. The lower section of the bark was cut into sections and shipped from San Francisco to New York to Paris, where stunned audiences paid good money to see it.

After the bark was removed, Hanford ordered his men to fell the tree to determine its age and height. This, of course, was easier said than done. The work was carried out with large hand drills and chisels, as no saw in existence was large enough. Iron bars were welded onto the tools in order to reach through the 25-foot trunk. It took five men working 22 days to finish the job. When the giant finally fell and the dust settled, it was determined that the “Discovery Tree” was 1,300 years old and 302 feet tall.

By 1854, a man named A.S. Haynes had become the owner of Dowd’s redwood grove, which he called the “Mammoth Grove Ranch.” He quickly set about turning the redwood trees into the centerpiece of a tourist attraction. He had the stump of the “Discovery Tree” planed smooth and topped with a seasonal house made of canvas and cedar boughs. The stump would go on to host weddings, concerts, dances and other events. A small hotel was built next to the stump and a bar complete with a billiards table and two bowling lanes was built on the fallen trunk. The bark of another massive tree, “The Mother of the Forest,” was stripped to 116 feet and sent on a tour of the country to promote the “Mammoth Tree Grove.”

Even as the Placer mining dried up in the late 1850s, the world rushed in to view the giant Sequoias of Calaveras County. The register at the Sperry Hotel, now the Murphys Hotel, was filled with the names of famous people who came from far off to see the massive redwoods. Ulysses S. Grant, Mark Twain, Horatio Alger Jr. and Henry Ward Beecher were just a few of the prominent people who made the trip by rail and stagecoach to see the sights for themselves. In 1862, William T. Sherman passed through the grove in the company of three hundred men on his way over Ebbett’s Pass and into the battlefields of the Civil War.

In 1858, James S. Sperry, the co-owner of the Sperry Hotel in Murphys, bought the “Mammoth Grove Ranch.” He and his partner built a larger hotel that could house up to seventy-five guests and covered the stump of the “Discovery Tree” with a permanent wooden structure. On the Fourth of July in 1861, 32 revelers danced the Cotillion on the stump, still leaving enough room for an orchestra and a small audience.

In 1900, Robert Whiteside, a lumberman from Duluth, Minn., bought the “Mammoth Grove Ranch.” The sale of the property to a logger led to a public outcry and sparked a movement to save the redwoods. While the Sequoias weren’t ideal for logging themselves, the tall pine trees that surrounded them both made for good lumber and were a crucial component of the ecosystem.

The Calaveras Grove Association was soon formed to raise funds to purchase and protect the park. After a prolonged struggle, the North Grove was purchased in 1931 and became a part of the California state park system. The South Grove was added to the park in 1954, and a road was constructed to it down the slope of the Stanislaus River canyon, where Dowd had first set out on his fateful hunting trip that spring morning over 100 years earlier.

Following the discovery of gold in the American River in the spring of 1848, adventurers from all walks of life flooded into Calaveras County. Most planned to get rich and leave, but many fell in love with the land and chose to stay. Although the gold is gone, people from around the world still flock to the area seeking different kinds of natural resources—ones that can’t be replaced by any amount of precious metal.

Noah Berner has lived in Calaveras County for most of his life. He studied history at University of California, Santa Cruz, and enjoys snowboarding, playing guitar and shooting pool.

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