The Largest Tree Ever Cut Down
It was 1892...
World’s Fair Mania was in full swing. From a small office in Chicago, a small team of publicists had sent hundreds of thousands of letters to every state, city, and county across the country. They were inviting public officials everywhere to participate in the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition, a celebration of the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’ inaugural trip across the Atlantic. Thousands of miles away, on a quiet slope of the Sierra foothills in California, a mighty goliath’s branches swayed gently in the breeze. Just like it had done for nearly 2000 years.
As a Californian postman’s horse kicked up dirt just outside of Tulare County’s Board of Supervisors, the worldwide World’s Fair call had reached an isolated patch of land of less than 25,000 residents. Before them was an opportunity to showcase their home to the world. They would be competing with George Ferris Jr.’s “Wheel” Ride, the halls of 47 different countries, full-sized reconstructions of the Niña, Pinta, and Santa Maria, and Buffalo Bill Cody.
Tulare needed a calling card.
The Board’s eyes swung up to the mountains. At their doorstep were the largest trees in the world. Trees that have the ability to astound and humble anyone who stand before them. Trees that know no equal other than their own coastal cousins. Trees that have outlasted all the empires of man since Ancient Rome. Trees that, at the time, many refused to believe existed.
In 1876, a man named Martin Vivian used a loophole in California’s state law to fell and attempt to display the massive tree’s trunk at Philadelphia’s Centennial Exposition, the first World’s Fair in America. There was just one major problem: there was no way to get the tree there all in one piece. Vivian decided to slice up the trunk as if he was serving pie and ship the massive conifer across the United States. Whether it was shoddy workmanship, or the tree’s final resistance act of shattering as its towering body smashed to the ground, the public laughed at the displayed reconstruction. Vivian became infamous for this “California Hoax” and the majestic giant sequoias remained hidden from the world at large.
As it so happened, a Scottish immigrant was present the day Vivian killed the Centennial Tree. He would spend the next 14 years preaching the need to protect the mightiest of these Giant Sequoia Trees within the boundaries of three national parks. In 1890, John Muir and his allies convinced congress to establish Yosemite, Sequoia, and General Grant National Parks.
But not all the big trees were protected, and not everyone yet believed in their colossal existence. And Tulare County still wanted to prove itself to the world.
The Converse Basin Sequoia Grove sat on regular federal land and its timber rights had recently been leased to the Smith and Moore Co. Members of Tulare’s Board could pick any tree they wanted, so long as the lumber company was willing to part with it. For $5000 (the equivalent of over $133,000 in 2018), Tulare County purchased from Smith and Moore the second largest tree in the Converse Basin. It is said that the lumber foreman couldn’t bring himself to let the largest tree in the grove be cut down, which was eventually named after him. To this day, the Boole Tree still stands tall off a quiet trail in Giant Sequoia National Monument as the sixth-largest tree in the world.
On August 12, 1892, the axes of four men found their way to side of the General Noble Tree. For the next 13 days, the men severed tree from its roots atop scaffolding that rose over 50 feet up in the air. The exhibition planned to use a 30 foot section of widest part of the trunk. After it had been separated, it would be hollowed and combined with a “disk” layer to create two separate “floors” for guests to explore.
But one does not intend to live for over 3000 years and go quietly when its life is cut short.
The men had placed several wedges to help ensure that the top part of the tree would cleanly fall away from them, but Noble’s tremendous weight fell off the wedges and smashed directly into their scaffolding. With no way out, as their support crumbled beneath them, the men jumped onto tall stump they had just created and fell down prostrate as the mighty goliath crashed to ground. Ironically, one of John Muir’s big trees had saved the lives of the men who killed it.
Once the dust had settle, chunks of the tree were carefully taken down the mountain, loaded onto a train, and shipped off to Chicago for display.
The men of Tulare County had picked their exhibit perfectly. Noble’s remains were given the prominent and distinguished position of the U.S. Government’s main hall. Every visitor who wandered through its doors could step inside and wander about its interior. This time the workmanship was exemplary. The Noble Tree would not suffer the same fate as its Centennial cousin, and the Giant Sequoia Tree would now be famous to the world.
It was a cruel twist of fate, then, that the Official History of the Chicago World’s Fair would proclaim to the world that the Noble Tree hailed from the Mariposa Grove near Yosemite Valley.
Tulare County is never mentioned.
After Chicago, Noble's retirement must be one of the oddest in U.S. government history. The tree was shipped to Washington D.C., given a cupola roof, and used as governmental tourist attraction for nearly 40 years. When it had decayed beyond safe daily use, grounds workers at the Department of Agriculture turned Noble into a storage shed. Then, suddenly, the remains were stored and all verifiable record of the great tree vanish. What is known is that by the end of the 1930s, Noble ended up at Arlington Farm in Virginia. In 1941, the Department of Defense took over the area and broke ground on their newest building: The Pentagon.
Today, where General Noble used to sway in the wind, charred remnants still haunt the Sierra foothills.
Better known as the “Chicago Stump,” visitors to Kings Canyon National Park can follow a dirt road within the boundaries of Giant Sequoia National Monument and visit all that remains of the once majestic tree. The stump was burned by a man-made fire in 1950s. Oddly enough, the Forest Service’s plaque at its base strikes an odd tone. It celebrates an “enterprising entrepreneur” and “American curiosity” for cutting it down instead of reflecting on the evidence of death before it.
An enterprising visitor must have noticed this, because he or she scratched out the portion referring to the “using” of our nation’s forests. Of the six-thousand mature sequoias that once grew in the Converse Basin, fewer than 100 would survive the axe.
The rest would be converted into fence posts and pencils.
1) McGraw, Donald J., "The Tree That Crossed A Continent", California History, Volume LXI, Number 2 (Summer 1982)
2) Truman, Benjamin C. "History of the World's fair : being a complete and authentic description of the Columbian exposition from its inception" (1893)
3) Christensen, T.E., "The Great California Hoax", Sequoia Parks Conservancy (2015) https://www.sequoiaparksconservancy.org/tales/the-great-california-hoax