The Dethroning of a Sierra County Forest Monarch by Tom Gilfoy
There used to be a big ole sugar pine sitting high up on a ridge overlooking the North Fork of the Yuba River. Although a real giant, it probably appeared even larger than it really was because it was so much bigger than all the other trees around it. The Forest Service must have thought this old forest monarch was something special too as it put up a sign designating it, “King’s Sugar Pine.”
It’s hard to tell someone exactly where the old tree was located as there is no well known landmark in the area that can be used as a starting point for directions. About the closest thing to it is the old shut-down Brandy City Cal-Ida mill on the hill above Indian Valley, but the old mill is still miles away.
It was clear back in 1949 that I and a couple of my friends first stumbled on this beautiful old tree. It was while we were exploring the area in an old Model A Ford and traveling along a logging road between the Brandy City mill and Saddleback Mountain. We were rattling along the bumpy road at the old A’s max speed, say about 25 mph, when we came around a bend and BANG, there it stood in all its magnificent glory. I mean, it really leaped out and caught your eye. That’s when I took the picture accompanying this story. If you look closely you can see the Forest Service sign in the lower left of the picture. The two characters wrapped part way around the tree are my partner Mitch Steffensen and Wagon Train Bill Seely.
About eighteen years after seeing the tree this first time, I went looking for it again. It was the summer of 1966, and I had taken my family camping along the North Fork of the Yuba. As I wrote before, there are no nearby landmarks to help orient yourself for a search, and I think it was this, as well as the passage of so many years that made the search kind of hopeless. Even at that though, I gave up before I really wanted to as I had three bored and rather disgruntled kids on the back seat of the family sedan — all they could think of was getting back to the swimming hole where we were camped along the river at Fiddle Creek. The passenger seat’s occupant wasn’t all that enthusiastic about continuing either, particularly not after a passing logging truck almost ran us off the road, kicking up enough of that famous Sierra County red dirt to practically bury our car.
A couple of years later something made me start to think about the old tree again. That’s when it occurred to me that maybe it wasn’t there anymore. I mean, could it possibly have been logged during the intervening years along with a good part of the rest of the forest in this area? I thought this unlikely — surely the Forest Service wouldn’t mark a tree for felling that it had itself designated as the king of all sugar pines. But I couldn’t be sure, so I shot off an inquiring letter to George Duff, Cal-Ida’s General Manager in Auburn. Cal-Ida had near exclusive logging rights in the area so I knew that if the tree had been logged, it almost had to have been by them. I also wrote an inquiring letter to Henry Branagh, the then Tahoe National Forest Supervisor in Nevada City. I was surprised by how quickly I heard back from both letters
Mr. Duff was the first to reply. He wrote back in only two days — just about as fast as it took to turn the mail truck around. He remembered the size and stature of the tree quite well, but stated that back in 1952 or 1954 the Forest Service marked it for cutting and Cal-Ida had complied. He continued with his explanation:
I was at the location, not during the falling of the tree, but shortly afterwards. I believe I am safe in saying the entire tree was of no value. For the first 60′ to 100′ from the butt of the tree, it was almost completely hollow. In fact two large bears could make their home in the center of this tree . As I recall none of the tree was delivered to our mill at Brandy City with the exception of a few logs at the very top of the tree. … It was my understanding and belief that this tree was the largest Sugar Pine known anyplace, … this tree could be the King of all Sugar Pine.
Disappointed as I was to learn that the tree had been cut down, I still took some solace in knowing I had seen and probably taken the only picture known to be in existence of what had once been the world’s biggest sugar pine. But then, only a few days later, I heard back from the Forest Service and things started going downhill again. The letter was from George Leonard, Timber Management Officer for Tahoe National Forest. Although he stated the tree had indeed been “a magnificent specimen, measuring 97″ in diameter at breast height [commonly referred to as dbh],” he continued on to explain that sugar pine occasionally exceed 100″ in diameter and that the record to the best of his knowledge was one located down in Calaveras County near Dorrington which is 121″ dbh. When I read that I couldn’t help but think to myself, “Uh oh, that’s a good two feet more in diameter than our supposed Sierra County king of all sugar pine.”
Thus far the news was bad enough, but the worst was yet to come as Leonard went on to clarify how our tree got its name. He explained it was not named King’s Sugar Pine because it was considered the king of all sugar pine, as I and others mistakenly believed. Rather, he stated it was named after a former Downieville District Ranger whose name was George King. Can you imagine that? Here for all the years I believed the tree was some kind of a forest king, it was named king only because King happened to be the last name of a former District Ranger. With all due deference to how deserving George King may have been, this was disappointment — big time.
But this is still not quite the end of the story. In April of 1973, American Forests magazine, a publication of the American Forestry Association ran an article about its Social Registry of Big Trees. I thought the above exchange of letters about King’s Sugar Pine was relevant to the story and might even provide a little amusement to accompany the otherwise serious business of searching for the world’s biggest trees. The editor agreed and printed the exchange of letters in their next issue, which in turn triggered a number of letters back.
Some of these letters didn’t think there was anything at all funny about the story. They were critical of both Cal-Ida and the Forest Service for their roles in cutting down such a beautiful old tree, and of me too for my insensitive reporting of such a catastrophe. The magazine also caught the attention of Richard Castaldini, District Ranger in Downieville who instead of writing the editor wrote directly to me on July 16, 1973. He wanted me to know he had visited the King’s Sugar Pine site on the same day he was writing and that “the stump is still evident. An old sign, ‘King’s Sugar Pine’, sits in a hole in the stump. The stump as best I can measure is 114 inches across.” He concluded his letter with a precise description of how to find the stump.
Although Mr Castaldini’s letter was written almost 50 years ago now, I still hope to use the directions someday soon to once again try to find the location. Who knows, maybe the old sign will still be there identifying the one-time location of Sierra County’s dethroned king of the forest.
Author’s Note: Insofar as I know the largest known sugar pine in Sierra County today is on the Mountain House Road near Goodyear’s Bar. It’s been named Grandfather’s Giant and checks out at a healthy 95″ dbh. Meanwhile that largest known sugar pine near Dorrington reported by Mr Leonard has continued to grow. Between the 1968 date of his letter and 2017, its girth increased by 17″ , from 121″ to 138″ dbh. (Tom Gilfoy welcomes your comments. He may be reached at: email@example.com)