Sierra Nevada Big Trees

sierra NevadaCalifornia’s gold rush inadvertently led to the discovery of the Sierra’s forest masterpiece: the Big Tree. In 1848 brothers John and Daniel Murphy, who had immigrated with the Stevens-Murphy-Townsend Party in 1844, worked their way up the Stanislaus River and struck it rich in a flat quickly known as Murphy’s Camp. Their spectacular success (both brothers became millionaires while still younger than 25) attracted multitudes and the gold was rich, but there wasn’t enough water in the immediate area. Contractors were hired to build sawmills to create lumber to build flumes to carry water from the Stanislaus 15 miles distant. Hunters, employed to provide fresh meat to the construction workers as well as the prospectors, were soon ranging farther and farther away in search of game. One day in 1852, a hunter named Augustus Dowd, who was following a wounded bear, suddenly found himself staring at a grove of trees so gigantic he couldn’t believe his eyes. Persuading the entire camp to follow him the next Sunday, they too recognized the immensity of the trees and news spread that a modern wonder of the world had been discovered. Dowd wasn’t the first to see the Big Trees, but it was his “find” that brought worldwide attention. Botanists argued about its classification—today commonly known as Big Tree, Sequoia, or Sierra Redwoods—but the immediate result was exploitation. Over the next few years some of these natural giants were laboriously felled and their stumps used as dancing platforms, and their stripped bark exhibited worldwide. The Calaveras grove Dowd discovered was, for a time, the most famous of these specimens, even after it became known that there were other groves of Big Trees from the Middle Fork of the American River in the north to the Tule River in the south. Today all are protected, reserved for public enjoyment just as they stand in their natural, centuries-old splendor. 


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