Wawona Tree, Mariposa Grove, California, USA about 1892

Wawona Tree, Mariposa Grove, California, USA about 1892

“WAWONA” BIG TREE, MARIPOSA GROVE, CALIFORNIA — Who has not heard of the “Big Trees” of California? They are another proof of the fact that the western portion of our country is a region marvelously endowed by Nature. There are in the area here which has been set aside by Congress “for public use, resort and recreation,” more than 600 trees, which have in respect to size no rivals in the world. A stage-coach, with driver, passengers and horses, can be driven through the upright hollow trunk of one of these forest giants, which nevertheless is still sufficiently alive to bear leaves on its branches 300 feet above the ground! Even more enormous than those still flourishing here are some prostrate monsters, one of which must have had a circumference of 120 feet and a height of 400! The largest tree now standing here has a circumference of about 100 feet and its first branch (six feet in diameter), is 200 feet from the ground! It is an extraordinary fact that the cones of these trees are no larger than walnuts, and their seeds are only about a quarter of an inch in length. One feels himself a pigmy as he stands beside these forest Titans, not only in comparison with their prodigious size, but as he measures his brief life with the long line of thirteen centuries, of whose slow march their annual rings and weird colossal limbs give proof. Some of these monarchs may have been standing here, ages before a human voice disturbed the silence of the Mariposa Grove, or ever a human foot was placed upon the soil of California. (from John L. Stoddard, Glimpses of the world; a portfolio of photographs of the marvelous works of God and man – 1892)

The Wawona Tree, also known as the Wawona Tunnel Tree, was a famous giant sequoia that stood in Mariposa Grove, Yosemite National Park, California, USA, until 1969. It had a height of 227 feet (69 m) and was 26 feet (7.9 m) in diameter at the base.

The origin of the word Wawona is not known. A popular story claims Wawō’na was the Miwok word for “big tree”, or for “hoot of the owl”, a bird considered the sequoia trees’ spiritual guardian.

A tunnel was cut through the tree in 1881, enlarging an existing fire scar. Two men, the Scribner brothers, were paid $75 for the job (equivalent to $1,839 in 2015). The tree had a slight lean, which increased when the tunnel was completed. Created by the Yosemite Stage and Turnpike Company as a tourist attraction, this human-made tunnel became immensely popular. Visitors were often photographed driving through or standing in the tunnel.

Construction of the Wawona Tree was part of an effort by the Park Service to increase tourism in the age of the automobile. Stephen Mather, the first Director of the National Park Service, was a main supporter of building a tourist clientele for the parks, which would in turn attract increasing appropriations from Congress and establish the Park Service as a legitimate and noteworthy bureaucratic agency. Mather and his chief aid, Horace Albright, who would also be his successor, worked to make the parks as accessible as possible and, with drive-through attractions such as the Tunnel Tree, as memorable as possible. Mather and Albright had already worked on the “See America First” campaign, trying to connect with western railroads to increase visitation to the parks. In the 1920s, the Park Service actively promoted automobile tourism. Roads and roadside attractions bloomed on the sites of Yellowstone, the Grand Canyon, and Yosemite. Roads, they believed, would also increase accessibility for “those who are not as strong and agile as you and I, for they too are entitled to their inspiration and enjoyment,” as Albright stated in a 1931 letter about roads in the Smokies. Around this time, the term ‘scenic drive’ became introduced into the national vocabulary. The Wawona Tree may also have served as the inspiration for the 1946 children’s book, Big Tree, by Mary and Conrad Buff.

The Wawona Tree fell in 1969 under a heavy load of snow on its crown. The giant sequoia is estimated to have been 2,300 years old. When the giant tree fell, there was much debate over what to do with it. It has remained where it fell primarily for ecological reasons, but still serves as a popular tourist destination. Because of their size, giant sequoias can create vast new ecosystems when they fall, providing habitat for insects and animals and allowing new plant growth. It is now known as the Fallen Tunnel Tree.

Visitors to nearby Sequoia National Park sometimes confuse Yosemite’s Fallen Tunnel Tree with Sequoia National Park’s Tunnel Log. A modest notice of both the Wawona Tree and another tunnel tree appears in the May 28, 1899 issue of a Sacramento Daily Union article: “In the lower grove there is another tree through which the wagon road runs. It is named California and is twenty-one feet in diameter at the base and 248 feet in height.” (from Wikipedia)


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