Felling the Giants
The sequoia sempervirens is the tallest growing tree in the world. They have evolved over millenia to grow vigorously in the fog belt of the Pacific North Coast. European settlers in and around Humboldt County were stunned by the size and commercial potential of the standing giants. Many images were captured around the mid and late nineteenth century to share with the world the impressive scale of the gigantic redwood trees.
While recognizing the ingenuity and sheer determination needed to bring down a tree of such massive proportions, it is sobering to see these images knowing that within less than one hundred years of industry, almost all of the ancient trees will have fallen. Today, less than four percent of Redwood trees in old growth forests remain standing.
This article was printed in the Pacific Rural Press, in 1893. The tree described in the article is shown in the process of being cut down in the photograph below. The scale of the the massive redwood trees was stunning to people around the world, and several trees were cut down for use in exhibitions in the middle and late nineteenth century.
The "Mark Twain" tree, thirty-three feet in diameter, was cut down in 1891. Sections were sent the the Museum of Natural Science in New York City, and to the British Museum in London, where they are still on display.
Great care and precision was necessary to fall a Redwood Tree. A stage was built above the ground to be clear of irregular ground and tree roots; this was usually between six and ten feet off the ground. An undercut was then cut in the direction in which the tree was to fall, with two choppers, one left-handed, and one right-handed, each working with four-pound axes. The tree was then brought down with a combination of long crosscut saws (some twelve feet in length) and steel wedges.
The thick, stringy bark of the redwoods must be removed before the log sections were milled. Bark peelers in the 1800s were paid between fifty and sixty dollars per month, whereas choppers could be paid up to $125 per month, depending on their skill.
The great weight of the Redwood trees sometimes caused them to shatter upon impact, and logging operations took care to reduce breakage. Loggers prepared beds of branches for the trees to fall on, to minimize damage to both the tree falling and to other trees in its path.