Highlights from the Gary D. and Myrna R. Lowe collection on the Big Tree of California

January 9, 2020
Brian Bethel
Three tourists sit in an early automobile in front of a grove of giant sequoias.

Last year, I had the pleasure of processing one of the most fascinating collections I’ve had the opportunity to work on: the Gary D. and Myrna R. Lowe Collection of Big Tree materials. As the title suggests, the Lowe Collection by and large consists of photographs, prints, postcards, ephemera, pamphlets, government reports, periodicals, and souvenirs related to ‘Big Trees’ -- the original vernacular term for the awe-inspiring redwoods we know today as giant sequoia trees.

Giant sequoias (Sequoiadendron gigantea) are the most massive trees in the world, as well as being amongst the tallest and longest-lived of all organisms, with a lifespan of up to 3,000 years. Their natural distribution consists of a small area of California’s western Sierra Nevada, and their popularization in mid-19th century America played a crucial role in drawing tourists and visitors to a California made newly-accessible by the 1869 completion of the Transcontinental Railroad. Thus, the Lowe Collection traces both a fascinating natural phenomenon as well as the cultural landscape of mid-nineteenth century western United States.

A group of men with interlocked hands post around the base of a giant sequoia.

A group of tourists demonstrate a variety of poses that may be used next to a giant sequoia. Gary D. and Myrna R. Lowe collection (M2147). Dept. of Special Collections and University Archives, Stanford University Libraries.

 

The Lowe Collection of Big Tree materials is a labor of love of environmental hydrogeologist and collector Gary D. Lowe. After receiving a BS and MS in geology at San Diego State University in 1974 and 1981 respectively, Lowe pursued a career in hydrogeology (the study of the movement of groundwater in the earth's crust; also sometimes called 'geohydrology'), including 30 years of private consulting practice. Finding that working in consulting left him with a large amount of free time at his office, Lowe began studying the history of the giant sequoia tree of the Sierra Nevada, a topic he had been interested in since his early youth. This interest and study led over time to a collection of nineteenth-century photographs and prints exceeding 4,200 items. Additionally, Lowe has authored twenty books and pamphlets on the giant sequoia tree.

Explore highlights and themes from the collection below. A finding aid to the collection may be found here, and several high quality digitized prints from the collection may be viewed here. Materials may be requested on Stanford’s Searchworks page.

Westward tourists

After the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad in 1869, California-based businessmen strove to entice tourists to use the new rail line to visit the west. The giant sequoias, whose awe-inspiring size was depicted in photographs, illustrations, engravings, postcards, and advertisements circulated around the US, became an early attraction for transcontinental tourists, alongside what would eventually become the Yosemite, Sequoia, and Kings Canyon national parks. These tourist attractions in turn bolstered the growth of an accompanying network of hotels, carriages, tour guides, eateries, and novelty shops along the path to California’s Sierra Nevada.

A marching band poses atop a fallen giant sequoia.

Only a mighty giant sequoia could carry the weight of an entire marching band! Fitting large groups of people on top of, alongside, or around giant sequoias and giant sequoia stumps was a popular nineteenth-century pastime. Gary D. and Myrna R. Lowe collection (M2147). Dept. of Special Collections and University Archives, Stanford University Libraries.

 

The Lowe collection contains extensive documentation of this phenomenon, with tourists' scrapbooks, personal photographs, and correspondence interspersed with ephemera such as visitors’ guides, postcards, hotel registers, and a plethora of advertisements promising the beauty and wonder of northern California. These documents range from the mid-19th century up to the mid-20th century, providing a sustained glimpse of the evolution of how residents, visitors, and businesspeople engaged with the giant sequoia.

Two women pose atop an early automobile peeking out from the interior of a fallen giant sequoia.

Using fallen giant sequoias as garages was a popular twentieth-century pastime. Gary D. and Myrna R. Lowe collection (M2147). Dept. of Special Collections and University Archives, Stanford University Libraries.

 

Logging the Big Trees

There were numerous efforts to log the giant sequoia, both for timber and for the purpose of touring parts of the arboreal juggernauts around the world (see ‘Touring the Big Tree’ below). While the soft, brittle wood of the giant sequoia combined with its enormous size made the logging of the giant sequoia a generally unsuccessful adventure (the trees often shattered when felled), sequoia groves still endured several decades of logging activity before the creation of the Sequoia, Yosemite, and General Grant National Parks placed the groves under government protection.

Five men pose next to a partially-logged giant sequoia with a posed black bear carcass.

Many nineteenth-century visitors were just as eager to pose alongside decapitated trees as they were to pose alongside pristine ones. Note the posed black bear at foot. Gary D. and Myrna R. Lowe collection (M2147). Dept. of Special Collections and University Archives, Stanford University Libraries.

 

There are numerous photographs and prints documenting the logging process in the Lowe collection, documenting interesting tools of the operations such as the steam-powered logging engines (called “Steam donkeys”) used in nineteenth-century logging operations, as well as the miles and miles of flumes - small canals that transported lumber from the mountains to the Central Valley via human-made chutes - built to sustain the operations, some of them running as many as 50 miles to reach their destination.

 Lumberjacks in the High Sierras pose alongside steam-powered logging tools and a horse-drawn cart loaded with fallen timber.

A "steam donkey" alongside its companions. Gary D. and Myrna R. Lowe collection (M2147). Dept. of Special Collections and University Archives, Stanford University Libraries.

 

Stereographs

One particularly interesting piece of cultural ephemera found in the Lowe Collection is the stereograph (also known as a stereoview or stereoscopic photograph), an early form of 3D viewing wherein two slightly-different views of the same scene are viewed through a double-lensed viewer (called a stereoscope) to create the illusion of three-dimensionality. The Big Trees collection contains hundreds of stereographs related to Big Trees (either of the giant sequoias themselves, tourists posing alongside the giant sequoias, or other stereoviews of local scenery and attractions), as well as others depicting cities and locations wherein portions of the Big Trees were exhibited.

A stereograph entitled "A stroll amongst the Big Trees, Calaveras" showing a man poised between several giant sequoias.

This stereograph example features Calaveras' 'North Grove' of giant sequoias; the Mother of the Forest tree is visible in the background with its first 100 feet of bark stripped. Gary D. and Myrna R. Lowe collection (M2147). Dept. of Special Collections and University Archives, Stanford University Libraries.

 

Represented photographers include J.J. Reilly, Eadweard Muybridge, Carleton Watkins, Thomas Houseworth, Thomas C. Roche, and John P. Soule, among many others.

A stereograph showing famed naturalist Galen Clark and his wife Isabella posing in front of Yosemite Falls.

In this Carleton Watkins stereograph, famed naturalist Galen Clark (an early promoter and later conservationist of giant sequoias) and his wife Isabella pose in front of Yosemite Falls. Gary D. and Myrna R. Lowe collection (M2147). Dept. of Special Collections and University Archives, Stanford University Libraries.

 

Touring the Big Trees

In the early 1870s, two independent attempts were made to ‘tour’ portions of giant sequoias around the United States and abroad. Businessmen William Snediker and William Stegman exhibited the ‘Forest King’ tree (originating from the Fresno Grove, now called the Nelder Grove in today’s Sierra National Forest), while businessmen F.S. Jellerson and A. Ricker exhibited the ‘Mammoth Tree’ (a segment of the ‘Discovery Tree’, which in turn remains in today’s Calaveras Big Trees State Park as the ‘Big Stump’ or ‘Discovery Stump’).

The reassembled bark of the 'Mother of the Forest' giant sequoia tree on exhibit in London.

Two stereographs showing the reassembled bark of the 'Mother of the Forest' giant sequoia tree on exhibit in London. Gary D. and Myrna R. Lowe collection (M2147). Dept. of Special Collections and University Archives, Stanford University Libraries.

 

In order to circumvent the challenges of transporting the giant sequoias, in 1854 a group of businessmen had the first 100 feet of bark stripped from the 'Mother of the Forest' tree in Calaveras's North Grove of giant sequoias. The sequoia's bark was then shipped to New York, where it was reassembled and exhibited, before once again being disassembled and shipped to London for further exhibition. Segments of Converse Basin's 'General Noble' tree were also exhibited at Chicago's 1893 World's Columbian Exposition.

Segment of the 'General Noble' giant sequoia on display at the 1893 Chicago World's Fair.

A segment of the 'General Noble' giant sequoia on display at the 1893 Chicago World's Fair. Gary D. and Myrna R. Lowe collection (M2147). Dept. of Special Collections and University Archives, Stanford University Libraries.

 

Bonus: Good Boys of the big trees

Finally, as a special bonus, please enjoy these images of sequoia-adjacent canines from the Lowe collection, photographed and curated by an overly-zealous dog enthusiast.

Three people pose atop a giant sequoia alongside a poodle on its hind legs.

Proud canine pays respects to tree aged 21,000 in dog years. Gary D. and Myrna R. Lowe collection (M2147). Dept. of Special Collections and University Archives, Stanford University Libraries.

 

Five men pose next to a partially-logged giant sequoia alongside a horse and a dog.

See if you can spot the dog in this one! Gary D. and Myrna R. Lowe collection (M2147). Dept. of Special Collections and University Archives, Stanford University Libraries.

 

A man and dog pose with the caption: "Walter Petit. A most successful bear hunter and popular guide of the High Sierras."

According to the caption, this pup was both a successful bear hunter and popular mountain guide! No information provided on accompanying unknown human. Gary D. and Myrna R. Lowe collection (M2147). Dept. of Special Collections and University Archives, Stanford University Libraries.

 

19th century advertisement for "Emery's Improved Dog Power", a dog-powered butter churner.

Researchers have yet to determine the success of Emery's dog-powered butter churner. Gary D. and Myrna R. Lowe collection (M2147). Dept. of Special Collections and University Archives, Stanford University Libraries.

Discover other treasures of the Lowe collection here, and and enjoy other digitized images here. Materials may be requested for in-person use on Stanford’s Searchworks page.

Author

Brian Bethel

Brian Bethel

Rare Books Cataloger
Project Archivist
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